The MTA’s Lack of Transparency Over a Worsening Budget Deficit

nat_ford.jpgMTA Chief Nat Ford should come clean about the budget deficit.
Listed under the MTA Board's agenda, on the agency's antiquated website, is a link titled "Know Your Rights Under the Sunshine Ordinance." "Government's duty is to serve the public," it says, "reaching its decision in full view of the public." It's an ironic juxtaposition given the MTA's recent lack of transparency about a worsening mid-year budget gap that could reach well over $45 million. Never mind next year's looming deficit.

A few weeks ago, we brought you news that the MTA had yanked an update on the budget from the board's agenda at the last minute. Staff prepared a PowerPoint outlining the crisis but the MTA refused to hand it over to Streetsblog, arguing it was in draft form and therefore not releasable under the Sunshine Ordinance. So we retained a respected San Francisco media attorney to try and obtain the document on our behalf.

In her letter to MTA spokesperson Judson True, attorney Erica Craven-Green argued "that even if in draft from under section 67.24(a) of the Sunshine Ordinance, draft documents are not exempt from disclosure and must be produced."

The MTA did produce the document [PDF] but it redacted the information in question, leaving eight pages blank. In an email, True claimed the Sunshine Ordinance "actually provides that portions of a draft document containing recommendations of the author may be withheld from disclosure. Since portions of the responsive draft document you have requested contain recommendations of SFMTA staff, the SFMTA is redacting any such recommendations from the document that we are providing you."

We filed a second "immediate disclosure request," arguing the document was legally deficient, with the expected result: the MTA again refused to turn it over without redaction. The draft argument is a common excuse that many city agencies use when they don't want to comply with the Sunshine Ordinance.

What is the MTA hiding? Why won't it be transparent about its budget deficit? As Craven-Green wrote in the letter to True, not only does the agency's refusal to release the document violate the letter of the law requiring disclosure, it also does the public a serious disservice:

The public has a right to know about the MTA budget deficit. Indeed they have a need to know. The MTA not only provides a critical service to thousands of public customers every day, but its financial state has a huge impact on the overall fiscal health of the City.

A budget update is on the agenda for today's MTA Board meeting, but the document [PDF] associated with the item, which was released less than 24 hours before the meeting (not the required 72 hours under the Sunshine Ordinance), reveals some numbers but is still vague. It admits the MTA has a $45 million mid-year deficit and that the agency has reduced it to $19.6 million through a variety of measures, but it does not give much detail.

The document claims MTA will reduce the gap by using $6.7 million in stimulus funds for operations, realigning Muni operator schedules to the tune of $1.5 million, reducing overtime by $5 million, and eliminating "250 positions for six months" which is estimated to save $12.3 million. Which positions will be axed, the agency didn't specify, and the consequences of the downsizing remain unclear.  Important questions remain unanswered about how a reduction in overtime and realignment in operator schedules will affect service hours, not to mention the maintenance and state-of-good-repair concerns.

Are these Muni service cuts in disguise? Will maintenance suffer? Will the reluctance to extend meter hours result in more fare hikes in the near future? How does it intend to solve the $19.6 million deficit? And where is the debate about the 400 pound revenue-gorilla sitting in the corner of the room: the proposal to extend parking meter hours?

In the agency's defense, True said that what's going on behind the scenes is a refining of projections.

"Our goal is to begin to address the financial challenge now to try to do everything we can to keep our books balanced this year and to minimize that impact." He admitted "there's no doubt the impact will be significant from these kinds of measures" and that the layoffs will "come from across the organization" and will include front line positions, although no operators will be let go.

"We'll have to take a look in the coming weeks and months what effect this will have on service."

Considering that some important revenue measures the agency was counting on to solve this year's deficit have fizzled, and the crisis seems to be growing, the MTA has every reason to be forthcoming and lay it all out to the public.  Other smaller transit systems are facing similar or bigger crises, and have appeared to be more candid about it. We suspect the MTA is not telling us the full story.

If the MTA doesn't clarify the impact of its proposed solutions on service, we fear Muni riders will suffer the consequences, and its financial problems will keep the agency in a perpetual crisis mode for some time to come.