MTA Budget Shortfall Could Seriously Impact Muni Service

3419353728_200c99d1eb.jpgThe previous budget crisis, in May, brought Muni fare hikes and service cuts. Flickr photo: Steve Rhodes
With memories of last spring's budget battle still fresh in mind, the MTA announced in a mid-year budget presentation [PDF] today that it now faces a $45.1 million deficit and plans to cut 250 positions across the agency as part of its plan to help close the gap.

The shortfall resulted from the confluence of a delayed taxi medallion plan, numerous unanticipated expenses, and delay to the SFPark variable-rate meter program because Caltrans awarded a grant six months late. A broad package of Muni service changes going into effect December 5 also netted less savings than the MTA originally anticipated, as $13.4 in service cuts were offset by $8.3 million in service enhancements and delayed modifications.

Bike Plan EIR expenses also set the MTA back by $1.5 million more than the agency anticipated in consultant expenses. The agency also spent $800,000 in unbudgeted money on repairing video equipment, after multiple high-profile incidents highlighted widespread issues with Muni's on-vehicle cameras.

MTA proposed $25.5 million in additional cuts and adjustments to try to dent the deficit. Half that saving comes from eliminating 250 positions, which haven't been finalized yet, though MTA Executive Director Nat Ford said about 80 of them are likely to be currently unfilled jobs. "They are all categories, with the exception of operators," said Ford told the MTA Board today.

"We are still reviewing those positions to see what positions are clearly necessary for us to have a safe, reliable Muni system as well as the rest of our operation," said Ford. "We have identified 250 positions. However we still need to continue reviewing those positions to make sure they are the right ones. We have more vacant positions in the organization, but we want to make sure when we talk about eliminating positions, we are eliminating the correct ones."

Ford noted that while the MTA cut 370 positions during the spring budget crisis, those positions were mostly managerial and executive. The new position cuts would include maintenance workers, support functions, and custodians.

Another $5 million in savings comes from reducing "Regular Day Off" and special events coverage, which also could impact service.

The agency will transfer $6.7 million in federal stimulus funds from capital projects to operating expenses, effectively canceling out the economy-related losses, and will squeeze $1.5 million for the half-year by optimizing Muni operators' schedules.

While the MTA has plenty of company nationally in facing a large mid-year deficit, closing the final $19.6 million gap, and finding 250 positions to cut, could be deeply painful. The deficit also places extra pressure on the MTA Board to extend parking meter hours, in spite of opposition from the mayor's office and some business owners. That could bring in over $8 million annually, though the board may be inclined to pilot the program first, so that revenue may not arrive in time to deal with the current deficit.

MTA Board Chairman Tom Nolan reiterated his support for extending meter hours instead of cutting service. "It comes down to revenue increases and union concessions or service cuts," said Nolan. "I think it's very important to make it very clear what the options are, what the consequences are."

Director Malcolm Heinicke noted that, though he's previously said policy should lead budget concerns, the budget gap puts more pressure on the board to complete a taxi medallion reform plan. The delay to that program contributed $7.5 million to the shortfall.

Heinicke also pushed for the agency to avoid making "de facto service cuts" by cutting positions that would impact service in unpredictable ways. "I'd rather not cut any more routes," said Heinicke. "But if I have to cut the 36, which is in my neighborhood, on a Sunday morning, as opposed to cutting the 14 on a Monday morning [through unplanned missed runs], it's an easy decision."

During the public comment session, Tom Radulovich, Executive Director of Livable City, also said he'd like to avoid de facto service cuts. "It's important to note the de facto service cuts that happened in past years," said Radulovich. "Routinely, just a few years ago, Muni would miss 5 or 6 percent of its runs. It was the service equivalent of rolling blackouts."

"We really don't want to see MTA sliding back. Keeping the transit staffing whole has obviously got to be number one."