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The Shenanigans Begin on the Eve of Today's Budget and Finance Committee Meeting...

At 1:30 today the Board of Supervisors' Budget and Finance Committee Meeting will be held, and Sup. Chiu's move to veto the SFMTA budget and ask them to come up with a more realistic plan will be up for discussion. If you haven't already done so, email your Supervisor and ask them to support this measure, and if you can make it to the meeting, show up and give 'em a dose of reality. I would love to attend, but I have a day job that doesn't allow me to go to City Hall today, unfortunately.

Today's Chronicle had some new political shenanigans being tossed around by absentee Mayor Newsom, though. Even as the MTA released new statistics showing on-time performance is improving (!), the Mayor was out there defending a budget plan that will ensure these gains are lost, and that will balance the budget in such a way that creates long-term problems we'll pay for years to come.

It's clear Newsom has been caught off guard by this situation. You can hear his beleagurement when he says things like "We're at the point now where we can't get down to zero (deficit) without tough decisions," Newsom said. "I hate the idea of raising fares. I don't want to cut Muni service. But I ask (critics), 'What ideas do you have that do not eviscerate public safety and health and human services?' ""

Well, sir, people offered plenty of ways to do so. They asked you to stop using Muni as a cash machine for other departments, looting all the money Prop. A allocated to Muni and use it for fat overtime paychecks at other agencies. The MTA staff made recommendations for more revenue, but you and your allies on the Board of Supervisors pressured the allegedly politics-free MTA to back off of them. And finally, when discussions were being held, you were out of town raising money for your race for governor, so you didn't lift a finger or do a thing (besides re-allocate Muni money to pay for staffers in your expensive office) to live up to all those green platitudes you speak of outside of San Francisco.

Because of the arcane structure of the MTA, vetoing it and forcing a do-over is the only thing we can do to make true "tough decisions." Perhaps if the Mayor actually made some and showed some leadership, he might know what that is.

Until then, it's up to the rest of us to show some leadership instead. It's no way to run a railroad, for sure, but until we fix how the MTA is governed, we'll have no other option but the nuclear one to effect change and force all those well paid "staff" to put in a day's work for a change. No one is delusional enough to think that something isn't gonna give, but the budget "as is" is a joke at our expense.

Comments

So Greg, what do you cut instead? Sure, okay, get your money out of the MTA cookie jar. It's a unpalatable choice to raid MUNI funds, I agree. However, that money WAS going somewhere. How are you going to make up for that money?

Alex, I've proposed several options, you know that. Unlike the many many well paid people in the SFMTA, the Mayor's office, the Board of Supervisors, the SFCTA and so on, I don't do this full time nor do I have the resources to write up a complete alternate budget for the entire city.

I'll say this - the City has consistently wasted money on excessive hiring for managers when they're cutting front line workers. We're getting federal money for many many projects - but there's no accountability for those funds at the local level. We don't structure our local taxes in a way that makes sense, so we lose revenue that way too. I've seen systems demonstrated that would increase and make more efficient current revenue streams (where we leave so much money on the table at the same time asking for people to pay more and get less). I'm willing to pay a lot more for a fast pass if it provides service - if I pay more and get shit service, that's just stupid and a no- go for rational people.

But to suggest that it's either or only is bullshit. We have a city. It costs a certain amount to do things. Some agencies are not particularly well run. Perhaps if we had leadership in the past to take this more seriously in better times, we wouldn't be scrambling now. But that's not what happened and because of the idiotic way the MTA is governed, we can't have a rational discussion and have the kind of give and take you suggest. Instead it's nuclear option only, and if that's the case, frak it, let's do it and force a re-do.

Finally I'll offer this as a way to kill a few birds - consider merging the MTA with the City similar to what King County, WA (a county that's 1/3 of the state) merged the County gov't with Metro, the agency that did the transit for the county. They eliminated a ton of admin positions, made their County Council (same as our Superivors) the board of the combined agency, and thus made the new government entity directly accountable.

If we did something like that, that would also allow the SFCTA to be merged into this new County MTA, since you'd have elected officials (the Board) in charge of sales tax money (required by law and why the SFMTA can't touch SFCTA's money).

And while it's fun to bitch about the Board, the sad fact is that the SFCTA is a hell of a lot better run than the SFMTA and Muni. Something to consider.

You've spitballed at us for a while now, and that's fine. But what would YOU propose as an alternate budget? I'm willing to listen (as I always do), but I'm getting a bit sick of being told only I can come up with a replacement budget for the City. If the 1000s of overpaid people in City Hall can't come up with this on their own, can we at least fire them and use the money we save to pay for something worth while?

Actually, with a precipitous drop in income, I'm rather willing to accept the current budget. It sucks, but that's where we've arrived.

The relationship that truly doesn't work is the higher fares must equal similar service. Every other source of income at the MTA has taken a hit (taxes, ads, tickets, etc). If this weren't the case, then yes, it would be more reasonable to expect an unchanged level of service.

I've proposed a few suggestions, but nothing I can come up with would come close to bridging the gap left by the drop in pretty much every revenue stream at the MTA. It's not simply bad management, it's more of a perfect storm IMO. In such a situation, you're going to have to cut service.

It's not that only you can come up with a replacement budget, but it's that I'm not seeing any viable alternatives to cuts (of some severity) to MUNI service.

Ideas:

Merging the SFCTA and SFMTA. I've seen this proposed by coworkers, and it doesn't seem entirely unreasonable (BART seems to make due with a directly elected board). Merging the CTA/MTA functions into the BoS does seem a bit scary to me as, MUNI is a complex beast that I'd prefer to leave to people who have some sort of transportation experience.

In that vein, I'm not convinced to give up entirely on the MTA just yet. Ford brought in a new safety chief, and I feel like I'm seeing more training vehicles... and I know I'm been seeing tamper evident safety seals on the door interlock override switches. Likewise, there was an article in one of the dailies about how the MTA is starting to clean house in terms of the bad drivers. Also, I feel like I've seen those ex-AC Transit Gillig buses out in revenue service more frequently (as opposed to letting them sit mothballed).

Converting the whole system to POP. I've been shouting this for ages. We've spent ungodly amounts of money on TL. We've deployed POP enforcement people (and are now saddled with their legacy costs). Converting the whole system to POP will increase efficiency, but won't come close to making up for all of the lost income.

Eliminate the 74X, T, and 20. Bring back the 15. Buses are far cheaper to run than rail. The 15 worked, the T doesn't. Hell, trolley coaches are the single cheapest mode of transportation that MUNI currently employs. As an added benefit this frees up extra LRVs that could be used to improve every other metro line. The 74X is a clusterfuck.

Encourage more 311 use, maybe. I read somewhere that the MTA pays a flat rate of a few million dollars a year for 311's services. If this is the case, the high cost per call is due to the relatively low call volume. Let's eliminate as many of the public facing customer service folks at the MTA and move over to 311 if this is the case. If not, the MTA ought to secure a flat rate fee.

Salary concessions. Janitors make, what, $70k/yr? Drivers make how many extra dollars an hour for working on 'regular days off' even if it's not overtime? How many for working past 5p? Likewise a 10-20% (or more) cut for any management position, and wholesale elimination of bonuses.

Longer term solutions would indeed include Props 13 & 8 reforms, and some way of preventing the state government from raiding county/city funds.

As for terminating all of the unneeded employees: not a bad idea on the surface. But watch out for the civil service rules that grant them things like health care for a few years after termination and pension costs and so-on. Eliminating civil servants, as fun as that might seem, is not an immediate win.

My personal suggestion is to do a thorough overhaul of revenue collection. Institute POP on the lines where people are boarding through the back door regularly, and have fare inspectors. That should at least keep the service moving. Ticket vending machines at busy stops won't hurt either. Hire some revenue auditors to make sure fares are really being collected. If they're not, that's grounds for firing (call it embezzlement or something). If the fare inspectors aren't making their rounds and just lounging around at a station, that's also grounds for firing. Get the fare inspectors out there, including in the second car of 2-car trains on the surface rail lines. Make sure Muni gets ALL the money they're owed, and POP would improve service too. Maybe get some better supervision to keep things running more smoothly and re-arrange the service when delays get too bad. Maybe fire some workers if they're clearly underperforming or harmful to Muni service. Definitely change the stupid work rules to be more straightforward. And raise the fare, especially for the monthly pass, but perhaps offer some kind of added bonus, like cross-honoring passes across the Bay Area on weekends.

I don't think the SFMTA budget problem is that complicated. Killing the Culture Bus is a good start. Not starting other useless, expensive projects like the Culture Bus with all the federal money the budget proposal boasts about would be another. Allowing pedestrians (including me, most of the time) to suffer without new "greening" projects, sure. Putting off bus and trolley upgrades for a little bit, no brainer. Not expanding rail lines, cool. How about an across-the-board pay cut of 10% for anyone making over, say, $125K? Just spend the frickin' money on transit, not bullshit, and we'll make it through the recession without having to cut every possible line to Ocean Beach. (What is with the obvious grudge against Cliff House? It's weird.)

P.S. According to the illustrious MTA employees today presiding over the complete dearth of inbound L service this AM, the proper solution is: don't call 511, call 311 -- and get a car.

The Schedules department was instructed to make the cuts even if the Board votes down the budget.

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