With prestige comes high costs

The bills keep arriving at City Hall for the controversial Olympic torch relay on April 9. And the still-rising totals — currently at $760,000 even before overtime charges for hundreds of police officers show up — do not bode well for San Francisco’s projected $338 million budget deficit.

On Tuesday the Metropolitan Transportation Authority reported it spent nearly $150,000 on the single-day event. These costs pay for the 175 Muni and Department of Parking and Traffic staff on duty during the torch relay, including 68 parking control officers and three operations coordinators.

The first accounts payable claim was $610,000 billed for standard event logistics such as ceremony expenses, receptions and shuttles for the torchbearers, decorative banners and media relations. The City expected these costs to be enthusiastically donated by civic-spirited private and corporate sponsors.

Instead, donations have been difficult to come by because of bad publicity when contentious crowds in Paris and London protested the torch, citing the Chinese government’s human-rights abuses in Tibet and support of the brutal Darfur regime. Mayor Gavin Newsom said that he and other prominent volunteer fundraisers, including former Mayor Willie Brown, were personally working the phones and had collected pledges of nearly $400,000 towards that debt.

The Examiner believes Newsom and police Chief Heather Fong made the best of a bad situation at the relay. Thousands of angry pro-Tibet and pro-China protesters were thronging The Embarcadero. And if Newsom had not made a last-minute route change, the unavoidable outcome would have been crowds attempting to extinguish the torch and being driven back by police, hundreds of arrests and dozens of complaints of police brutality.

As it worked out, the protesters were still able to express their free-speech issues during large demonstrations that kept the peace. It is regrettable that a majority of spectators, who just came to see the historic torch procession, were deprived of the sight. But the alternative of trying to move the torchbearers through the previously announced route would have been far worse.

The underlying problem is that if San Francisco is to claim its place as a world-class urban center, it cannot refuse to host visiting events that carry potential risks. Would The City really ask the pope or the president of the United States to stay away if they wished to pass through here? High-profile visitors can be expected to trigger substantial municipal expenses; it is an unavoidable cost of striving to be first-rate.

The City’s best, and probably only, strategy is to respond to such opportunities on a case-by-case basis and try to avoid exorbitant spending. It does cost more to be in the major leagues than in the minors, but the ultimate profits are also much higher.

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