San Francisco’s $9 billion question

Working for the president of the Board of Supervisors, I spend my days deep in the weeds on San Francisco’s major policy issues. And there’s no better place to start than The City’s $9 billion question.

When you work in City Hall, you hear it often: “The City has a $9 billion budget. Why can’t we pave this street, buy that fire engine, build a statue of Robocop?”

It’s true — the mayor of San Francisco oversees a budget bigger than that of about 10 states. So where does all that money come from and, more importantly, where does it go?

It’s complex, but people deserve to know — and to influence — how their money is spent.

The major sources of The City’s $9 billion are charges for direct services at 32 percent, property taxes at 18 percent, and federal and state money at 15 percent. Local taxes on sales, hotel rooms, etc. add 12 percent, business taxes at 7 percent, and rents and concessions another 6 percent.

On the expense side, $4.3 billion, about half the budget, is legally restricted to “enterprise” departments — those that generate their own revenue by charging for provided services.

As the state’s only combined city and county, San Francisco has a huge portfolio. We operate a $1 billion airport, the 7th largest public transit system in the country, a water system spanning the state and a major seaport. All of this occurs under departments that are by-and-large financially independent.

Propositions 13, 26 and 218 require departments only charge what it costs to provide a service, and similar laws limit how or if department revenues can be transferred elsewhere. So the Public Utilities Commission’s revenue from water bills must go back into our water system. And SFO’s goldmine must stay within SFO.

The $9 billion budget effectively becomes $4.6 billion — what is called the General Fund.

Then there are the “set-asides.” Over the years, voters have mandated specific General Fund spending. This year, it totals about $910 million and includes $369 million for Muni, $323 million for children’s services and $113 million for libraries.

So, $4.6 billion becomes $3.7 billion.

Policy requirements drive spending on public safety. Voters mandated the police have at least 1,971 officers, and the Fire Department never decrease service from 2004 levels. This contributes to the $485 million and $329 million budgets of those respective departments. There are ample caveats here — 1,971 officers remains an elusive goal — but suffice to say public safety departments are popular: $800 million popular.

So, $3.7 billion becomes $2.9 billion.

Now the big players in health. About one in every five General Fund dollars comes from federal or state sources and can only be used for specific programs, like food stamps or in-home care. This money typically requires local matching funds that also come from the General Fund. Thus, San Francisco’s Human Services Agency books an $848 million budget.

The Department of Public Health operates similar programs, plus two large hospitals, and is $825 million of the General Fund.

So, $2.9 billion becomes a shade over $1.2 billion.

The remaining 39 departments have significant fixed costs themselves, notably pensions, such that even their budgets aren’t tremendously malleable. These departments build city projects and pave the streets (Public Works, $200 million); run our six jails and guard city buildings (Sheriff, $199 million); manage 220 parks (Rec and Parks, $98 million); represent The City in court (City Attorney, $72 million); and help me with this article (Controller, $62 million).

That’s the budget in a nutshell: The choices that are made, the hands that are tied. And when it’s all said and done, do you know how much the Board of Supervisors directly allocates each year? About $20 million. Out of nine billion dollars.

Alas, that process is a discussion for another day.

Conor Johnston is the chief of staff to the president of the Board of Supervisors, London Breed, and a Twin Peaks resident. The views here are his own.

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