For years, there has been a movement to convince cable television providers to charge for their channels on an a la carte basis. You can select each of the channels you want and pay for only those.
If we took that same approach to public budgets, what do you think would be the result? It’s not an entirely serious question; there are certain things that people don’t like but that need to be paid for nevertheless. But even with some obvious exceptions, if you had the chance to vote on most major expenditures and contracts on which the government spends your money, there would likely be a significant shift in spending, and probably a much more parsimonious budget.
San Francisco has an independent budget analyst, Harvey Rose, who told The Commonwealth Club in July about his efforts to reign in inefficiency and waste. “If they were running the agency as their own business, would they maintain the existing staff? And would their procedures be the same?” he said. “It’s true that government is not in the business of making a profit, but who can argue against government being run in the least costly manner possible?”
Our city leaders, apparently, that’s who.
Item: The new two-year budget for San Francisco rustles up enough of your money to let each supervisor hire a third legislative aide for $107,000 each. The median household income in San Francisco is about $55,000 – that’s household income, not individual income, which is naturally even less. And the Board of Supervisors can’t find someone to be a tertiary aide without paying them a ton of money? Just how hellish are these aides’ working conditions?
Item: It’s not the high cost of living in the City that’s the reason for big salaries, according to a report by The Bay Citizen a few years ago. The news organization found that most San Francisco city employees live elsewhere than San Francisco. Some live as far away as Placer County, where they “brought home an average of $127,164 in 2009 — nearly three times the county’s average per capita income.”
And on and on.
Unlike many cities, San Francisco is a rich town that is able to have its cake and eat it too, at least inasmuch as the cake is taxpayer money. However, every dollar that is spent comes from your wallet and from local businesses. That should grate on you every time you see a dirty street with potholes that have gone unfixed. Or when your local park has graffiti and overflowing garbage bins. Or whenever you think there should be greater police coverage of your neighborhood. Or you’re slapped with a yowza-large ticket for a minor parking or jaywalking infraction.
Every city is going to have some waste. But Harvey Rose makes a pretty strong case that in his role as independent auditor, he’s able to keep a close watch on waste, and the city implements about 90 percent of his recommendations. So most of our overspending in San Francisco
Does San Francisco need to have the nation’s highest-paid police chief at $321,577? We have the 14th largest population in the country, and it’s not as if it’s a hardship assignment. According to the Chronicle’s Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross, New York City’s top police officer by comparison earned just over $200,000.
Other City government jobs were also fantastically paid; Matier and Ross note that in the past fiscal year, 401 of San Francisco’s government workers brought home more than $200,000 each, including the assistant fire chief, who brings in $333,490 a year with overtime and other pay. Overtime? Our assistant fire chief is paid hourly? Who negotiated that contract?
This is not to argue that public workers should be poorly paid. Visit third-world countries and see the bribery and graft that comes with underpaid public servants supplementing their salaries. Pay them well and have high expectations for their performance, indeed. We can be proud of the fine work SF employees perform. But the idea that these folks need hundreds of thousands of dollars to do their duties is a sales job that San Francisco’s elders should have been able to see through.
Is it really fair to make a city resident who hasn’t received a raise in four years ante up for raises for already highly compensated public servants? One is left with the impression that the city’s compensation is dictated more by tax-and-spend ideology than by tough negotiating on behalf of the paymasters.
So to make a corollary to Harvey Rose’s question, let’s suggest city leaders ask themselves before they spend any public money: “Is it fair to make a San Francisco resident earning $50,000 or $60,000 pay the salary for someone making $100,000 or $200,000 or more?” Sometimes, the answer will be an emphatic yes. More often than it is now, the answer should be no.