According to recent data compiled by American City Business Journals, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee is the highest paid mayor in America with an annual salary of $289,000. I guess with a $9.6 billion budget, that’s a drop in the proverbial bucket. It’s certainly not merit-based: As San Franciscans grow angrier about the condition of their once fair city, Lee’s approval number has plummeted to the low 40s, with those who “strongly approve” of his performance in single digits.
Perpetually perched atop glorious lists such as “best places to visit,” San Francisco now takes titles like “worst roads in the nation.” A November 2016 study by the National Transportation Research Group found that 71 percent of San Francisco’s roads are in poor condition — that’s worse than any other city with a population of 500,000 or more. Drivers here pay nearly $1,000 on average for auto damage caused by those rough rides. Lee’s answer is of course to add another layer of bureaucracy called “the fix-it team,” with a “fix-it director” (yes, that’s the official title) who reports directly to him. Are you telling me with a budget bigger than the nations of Haiti, Belize, Aruba, Jamaica, Cuba, and the Bahamas combined, bigger than 13 U.S. states, bigger than every U.S. city per capita except Washington, D.C., that we can’t get potholes fixed without creating another six-figure middle management job?
While potholes are a huge problem, homelessness is a crisis unlike anything I’ve seen in more than two decades in this city. When Mayor Lee didn’t get his sales tax increase last November (a resounding 65 percent of voters rejected it), he warned there would be cuts made to homeless initiatives. He’s already made good on that promise, cutting a $3.1 million program that provides rent subsidies for vulnerable populations like seniors, veterans, and the disabled. Yet Lee can find money for the legal defense of undocumented immigrants. He authorized the public defender’s office to use more than $200,000 to hire three new attorneys and a paralegal to represent immigrants here illegally who are facing deportation, some of them for committing crimes. That’s on top of an additional $1.5 million for nonprofits appropriated after the November election, which is on top of a $3.8 million prior commitment.
San Francisco is very proud of its sanctuary city status. Sanctuary cities harbor undocumented immigrants who might otherwise be deported by federal immigration law enforcement officials. There are around 140 sanctuary cities and counties in the country, but only a few use public funds to defend undocumented immigrants. New York is one of those cities, and Public Defender Jeff Adachi has already hired Jennifer Friedman, former managing director of immigration practice at the Bronx Defenders in New York City, to fill one of his new positions.
In January, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to block federal grants to sanctuary cities, meaning San Francisco could lose more than $1 billion. The city also faces a budget shortfall that will reach nearly $850 million in five years. Despite a 2011 voter-approved measure to cut employee retirement costs, San Francisco’s net pension liability more than doubled to $5.5 billion last June, and contributions to the system will increase 36 percent by 2022 — more than three times faster than revenue. With crumbling roads, filthy streets, car break-ins at record numbers, and homelessness worsening by the day, this hardly seems like the time to stand on our soapbox as a sanctuary city.
San Francisco has an estimated 44,000 undocumented immigrants, with the largest numbers coming from Mexico (11,000) and China (10,000). Whether you’re a super-duper liberal or just trying to tiptoe around political correctness in a city that is ripe with it, you can’t deny that undocumented immigrants place additional burdens on San Francisco. For example, complain all you want about the thousands of housing units taken off the market by Airbnb (and I do), but people here illegally are taking more than all the home-sharing startups combined, and they’re also using valuable city resources that, if you listen to the mayor, we can’t afford to give. I have friends who immigrated to America by the book and they’re some of the most vocal critics of illegal immigration. “I worked hard, more than a decade, to come here legally and become a citizen,” one friend told me. “It’s not fair that all these people come here illegally and then San Francisco rewards them for it.”
I can already hear the bleeding hearts screaming, “Racist!” but it has nothing to do with race and everything to do with common-sense priorities. I don’t think the city should be using public funds to defend the rights of immigrants to stay here illegally while slashing programs that keep vulnerable citizens housed and reneging on promises to deal with homelessness, crime, and crumbling streets by crying poor. If we lived in the Land of Oz lined with magic poppies and paved with yellow brick roads, then by all means, help everyone, but that’s not the case. We live in a financially sinking metropolis lined with “LeeVille” tent cities and roads paved with potholes, and the only thing yellow about those roads is the overflow of urine.
It was Supervisor David Campos who sponsored the original legislation for an undocumented immigrant legal defense fund. He wanted $5 million in taxpayer money to hire 10 attorneys, 5 paralegals, and 2 legal clerks in the Public Defender’s Office, and to pay community legal groups for 13 attorneys, 6 education and outreach staff, office space, and “administration fees.” Campos was termed out shortly after, but he wasn’t unemployed for long — he will now be a “deputy executive” for Santa Clara County making $240,000 a year — more than double what he earned as a San Francisco supervisor for a job that has “yet to be defined.” Call me cynical, but you would think a public servant passionate about helping undocumented immigrants in his hometown would take a job at a local nonprofit where he could use all those bureaucratic skills he learned as a supervisor to help them, and maybe even find private financing instead of expecting taxpayers to foot the bill. Why take a position in a county you don’t live in or care about? According to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Matier & Ross, “those in the know” say Campos sees it as a résumé builder for a possible run at the office of San Francisco city attorney (once a politician, always a politician).
Though Campos will now spend his days entangled in the congested Silicon Valley commute, his undocumented immigrant legal fund legislation has a new champion in recently elected Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, who wants funding for 17 staff members, including eight attorneys who would earn between $150,000 and $230,000 annually. She pushed her agenda at a March Budget and Finance Committee hearing. At least two supervisors, Malia Cohen and Katy Tang, showed some respect for taxpayers, saying they didn’t want to commit city funds without going through the regular budget process. “What happens when the Department of Public Health is over here, Human Services gets up in front us, and the Homeless Department gets up in front us when there are other federal cuts and, yes, lives are at stake as well for the people they serve, also. We do have to take that into consideration,” Tang said in a refreshing display of prudence.
There’s nothing wrong with championing a cause like Campos and Fewer — I’ve been known to champion a few myself — but when it’s a personal legacy or a pet project, I think they should make their case to the private sector, not taxpayers. And where are the champions of the causes that matter most to San Franciscans, like potholes, homelessness, traffic, and crime? Nowhere to be seen at City Hall, that’s for sure.