I split my time between the Silicon Valley and San Francisco. It’s a great arrangement: Just when I’m getting tired of too many places to park, squeaky clean streets, and an efficient government, it’s time to head back to the city. Our home in the Los Paseos neighborhood of San Jose (about 10 minutes outside of Los Gatos) has so few homeless that we know them by name. A neighbor on the NextDoor app will say, “I think Cheyenne is off his meds again — he was talking to himself in the parking lot of Lucky’s.” His family lives in the area and tries to help, but we know it’s not that easy when an adult child has mental health issues. So the police come out, get Cheyenne into treatment, and he’s gone for a few months. He’s been offered supportive housing, but he doesn’t want it, according to some old timers. But the neighbors, his family, and the city keep trying.
Homelessness isn’t the only thing San Jose does better than San Francisco. A few months ago, I took a bad fall on a piece of sidewalk that had been pushed up several inches by some overzealous tree roots. The pavement had been marked with green spray paint, telling me that the city was aware of the problem. Once again I turned to my neighbors on NextDoor. “Call the Department of Sidewalks,” someone suggested. “Department of Sidewalks?” I said to myself as I dialed the number. “This must be a joke.” Even if it weren’t, I expected to be on hold for an hour, but after just three rings a woman answered. She looked up the address. “Yes,” she said, “that property owner already has a warning. I’ll let the engineer for your area know.” Two days later, I was walking my dog down the same street and the sidewalk had been fixed.
On my next trip to San Francisco, I took my usual detour down Bayshore to Cesar Chavez, where I passed a homeless encampment of 10 to 15 tents (an improvement from two weeks before when there were 20 to 30). After fighting my way through construction congestion and avoiding rogue bicyclists flying through stop signs, I drove around our block six times in the middle of the afternoon before I lucked into a parking space that someone was leaving. Street cleaning happened that morning, so I was safe for a week (I don’t drive in the city much — between the traffic and the lack of parking, it’s not worth it). As I stepped out of my car I narrowly missed a dirty diaper, a broken vodka bottle, and a syringe. Someone had also stepped in a large pile of human feces and tracked it into the building. (Glad those street cleaning dollars are going to good use.)
When I got upstairs, I took a look at the ballot for the upcoming November election, and the only propositions that really jumped out at me were the ones asking for money. I have a simple method to the city’s madness: Vote no on anything that wants more from taxpayers. I’m not talking about the super-
rich folks — go ahead and pass Prop W, which would increase the transfer tax rate for real estate with a sale price of more than $5 million. I’m talking about measures like Prop K, which would increase the sales tax to 9.25 percent, hitting average San Franciscans in their already thin wallets on a daily basis. The fact is we have a bungling, bloated bureaucracy that can’t manage its homeless problem, fix potholes, or keep human feces off the pavement on a budget of nearly 9 billion bucks. As the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out recently, that’s nearly $200 million for every square mile — or about $11,000 per resident — and nearly equal to the budget of the state of Nevada, which has three times the number of residents. According to the CIA’s World Factbook, San Francisco’s monster budget is larger by a long shot than those of nearly 30 countries (for example, it’s 20 times the budget of Belize).
Because the city frequently defends its budget with the “We’re a city and a county” excuse, in a previous Reynolds Rap column (“Bureaucracy Inc.: If you think getting around the city is tough, try working with them,” July 2015), I compared the budgets of San Francisco and Santa Clara, a county with a million more residents. Santa Clara has around 19,000 county employees (100 residents per employee) and spends $750 on employee wages for each citizen. San Francisco County (which reports as the City of San Francisco) has nearly 36,000 employees (23 residents per employee) and spends $3,445 in employee wages per citizen.
Perhaps the scariest part is the difference in retirement and health care costs: Santa Clara spends $260 per employee while San Francisco spends $1,035. At the end of 2015, almost half of San Francisco’s projected $99 million budget deficit came from out-of-control pension costs, and those payouts could grow to nearly $400 million annually from the general fund in just two years. In plainer terms, over $40 million of the deficit was attributed to more going out to retirees than the city takes in from the fund’s investments.
Unabashed by the outrageous numbers, the city also wants more money for two of its most notorious problems: transportation and homelessness. Proposition J would create two funds — Homeless Housing and Services would receive $50 million each year for 24 years while the Transportation Improvement Fund would get $101.6 million under the same terms. As far as the transportation fund goes, I prefer the city fill the coffers by eliminating redundant positions and useless management jobs and lowering the salaries of those who remain (they should be willing to work harder for less once they’re scared their jobs will be eliminated in the next round).
The homeless fund idea gets thumbs down based on one figure: $241 million. That’s what the city spends per year on homelessness, a figure so large it has sprouted an entire cottage industry with eight city departments overseeing 400 contracts with 76 private agencies — and no way to track either the homeless themselves or the success (or the failure) of those programs.
I think it’s time for me to drum up support for a ballot initiative of my own, and Marina Times reader Evan Wallitt gave me the idea. Wallitt wrote that while it takes weeks or even months to get the city to fix a pothole large enough to swallow a Hummer, it takes less than two minutes after his meter expires to get a parking ticket. “The realization was startling,” Wallitt wrote. “We have the wrong people running our city!” That’s why I’m going to start a petition to get Proposition SDR on the ballot in 2017, which would read in part: Should the City of San Francisco be run by meter maids? For the answer, as Wallitt said, “Try parking in a 4 to 6 p.m. tow-away zone and see what happens at 4:01.”