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Politics as Usual

How more money will make us poorer

Some humble suggestions for how the city can spend its windfall
San Francisco isn’t the most expensive city in the world, but it’s not for lack of trying. Photo: werner22brigitte

The financial times, the business newspaper, publishes a lavishly illustrated oversized magazine insert with the least understated name on the planet: How to Spend It. Inside, readers find all kinds of ways to waste their excessive incomes on fancy cars, outrageous dresses, and islands. But if you’ve got the money, why not spend it, right?

Well, we’re in the money, honey. More than $400 million of it, in fact.

Thanks to our rip-roaringly insane real estate market, real estate taxes have overflowed their coffers to the tune of $415 million. And faster than you can say, “Why hasn’t anyone fixed that broken bus stop window near me for six months?” the city leaders are planning to spend that windfall money.

They don’t get to spend all of it, kinda not really sorta. That is because the law mandates more than half of the surplus goes into budget reserves and certain city agencies. So, for example, $38 million will go to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency; $29 million to public schools, youth services, and childcare; $9 million to libraries, and so on. A total of $156 million will go to the budget reserves, where it will save us from out-of-control spending.

AS IF

After divvying up the money into those legally mandated agencies and reserves, roughly $185 million will be left to be spent or returned to the taxpayer. No! I’m only joking; none of it will be returned to the taxpayer. In fact, apparently a leading proposal for spending the estimated $185 million would cost $196 million.

But wait, you say. You’re not a mathematician, but you’re pretty sure $196 is bigger than $185. How can this be? Because the supervisors who came up with the $196 million plan to get around the fact they don’t have enough money to fund all that by raiding the budget reserves for $11 million.

Yes, the money that was set aside so it wasn’t spent right away will get spent right away. So why bother putting it into the budget reserves in the first place?

Mayor London Breed has an alternative plan: spend the entire $185 million on homelessness. At press time, city leaders were still trying to come up with a solution that didn’t make economists’ heads explode.

THE WINNING NUMBERS ARE . . .

Perhaps you have heard about the bad luck many lottery winners have. CNBC reports lottery winners are more likely to declare bankruptcy within three to five years than the average American. People who come into these huge sums of money end up spending even more than they had, and they end up worse than they were.

There is some research to the contrary. A study of Swedes who won the lottery did not find them more likely to end up in penury. But that’s Sweden, the land that created the sober and safe Volvo. This is America, the land that created the SUV as a single-occupancy vehicle.

Nationally, the Left is eager to get budget control so they can undo some of the austerity of the Obama years, the different priorities of the Bush years, or the debt-reduction mindset of the Clinton years and invest considerable sums into health care and infrastructure. Here in San Francisco, where Democrats have been in total control since before time began, they still have no shortage of additional spending plans. The windfall could be $3 billion, and our city government would put together a plan to spend all $4 billion of it.

HOW TO SPEND IT

I will admit some of the planned spending by the supervisors is worthy. Teacher salaries — by all means. But not all of their plans are so grounded in fundamental common sense, so let me suggest some other ways to spend our windfall.

Street cleaning. Everyone agrees some of our streets are filthy, right? So let’s put the money on the road and get them sparkling clean! But then I found this from the Chronicle’s Phil Matier: “The 47-square-mile city spends more than four times as much as Chicago does to keep streets clean, [and] Chicago, at 227 square miles, is almost five times larger than San Francisco.” On second thought, don’t throw more money into that black hole.

Reduce fees on small businesses. Retail businesses are being decimated across the country, and here at home — the real estate craziness — remember that? The thing that spewed out an extra $415 million in taxes to the city — has spurred many landlords to hike rents to unsustainable levels. That, plus red tape and the increasing attractiveness of buying online while sitting at home in your underwear, means businesses could use a break here and there and not have to pay a fee every time they make a little change to their business. Perhaps a little committee could come up with a list of ways to streamline and decrease costs in the various agencies and offices of the government that interact with small businesses.

Reduce fines. If you jaywalk in San Francisco, you can face a fine of up to $250. Now, I’m as concerned about jaywalking as everyone else is — which is to say not at all. I once spoke with a police officer who was ticketing people for jaywalking, and he marveled about how people would jaywalk right in front of him “as if there was nothing wrong!” Well, there isn’t anything wrong with it unless you’re walking in front of a vehicle, and Darwin had something to say about that. It’s not evil, it’s just illegal. But hitting someone up for $250 for breaking a ridiculous law smacks more of revenue enhancement than law enforcement. For a tech CEO, that $250 is just one fewer guest to invite to his dinner at the French Laundry. For normal people, that is a serious hit.

Reduce parking fines. Speaking of fines — according to Spotangels, the city issues about $124 million a year in parking tickets, including more than $5 million in the Marina and $4.6 million in North Beach. Considering that you can easily pay $100 for an infraction, the city is raking in a lot of lucre. But considering that I have never lived in a city in which so many people double park (often, I don’t know why, literally next to an open parking spot), it would seem that drivers are not taking lessons from the fee structure.

BOO HOO

No other city in the world is watching San Francisco struggle to spend hundreds of millions of dollars and is shedding a tear for us. This is a problem we have to solve by ourselves. By which I mean it will be settled behind closed doors in the cloakrooms of City Hall. Nice, shiny, expensive City Hall.

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