MTA Board Braces for Budget to Get Worse

IMG_0109.jpgThe 44-O’Shaughnessy actually got increased service in December 2009, but future service cuts could leave passengers waiting longer. Photo: Michael Rhodes

In case it wasn’t clear before, this week’s MTA Board meeting eliminated any doubt that solving the agency’s $45.1 million mid-year budget deficit – not to mention future budget deficits – won’t be pretty. After close to an hour of testimony Tuesday from SEIU employees concerned about broad cuts to their ranks, several MTA Board members asked whether they couldn’t delay a vote on the cuts, only to be reminded that the layoff notices already went out in November, and that a $22 million shortfall remains even after the sweeping layoffs. Once again, the specter of service cuts also flared up as a near certainty in light of the agency’s progressively worsening finances.

In fact, action on the 250 positions the MTA is cutting and permanently leaving unfilled never required a Board vote, nor did the rest of the $23 million the agency’s staff identified in its mid-year budget presentation late last year. The next $22 million in budget balancing almost certainly will require a vote, however, and the MTA Board publicly grappled with how to fill the gap.

"I’m not ready to make any vote that’s going to lay off critical employees and I believe that these are critical positions," Director Bruce Oka told MTA Executive Director Nathaniel Ford at yesterday’s meeting, in light of the testimony from SEIU employees. "I want to explore every source of revenue before we make these cuts, because I don’t think we’ve done that."

Several other directors expressed similar concerns, prompting Ford to ask whether he was being directed to reverse the layoffs, which take effect later this month, and include two dozen PCOs and several bus cleaners. "At this juncture, are we suggesting that we hold off on the layoffs? Is that the Board’s direction," asked Ford. "Because they have already received notices, and the actual positions have been noticed, and are moving forward."

Board chairman Tom Nolan told Ford he felt such a decision was an administrative prerogative, not one the Board would dictate, but asked what other options the Board has in the short term to close the gap, in lieu of position cuts.

"The problem I have with this is, I’d like to do that, but this as opposed to what," asked Nolan. "If we’re not able to achieve some savings here, is there any mechanism that this Board has within its control in the short term, that is to say for the next six months, to raise revenue? Is there really anything it’s possible we could do?"

Ford responded that Muni fares and citation and parking rate increases were within the Board’s prerogative, but would not be appropriate, given that both have been raised in the past two years – including the Fast Pass increase effective January 1.

Service cuts remained as one of the only other options. Board members were heartened by the generally positive reception that the public outreach for the December 2009 service changes received, prompting director Malcolm Heinicke to wonder whether additional "planned and efficient service cuts" might be better than "de facto" service cuts through position elimination. "I don’t want to cut service. I think that’s something close to last resort," said Heinicke. "But I also don’t want us to forget that in order to close a budget gap, we cut service [in December 2009] in a very efficient and very well publicized manner, and it actually went pretty well."

"If our choices in the future are going to be – as this financial crisis worsens, as it may – to have more focused, smart service cuts, as opposed to forced layoffs and eventual de facto service cuts, as much as it pains me to say it, I would rather have the first."

While the last round of service cuts may have gone over without the sky falling down, as Heinicke put it, the next round almost certainly would not share the first round’s softening quality of being revenue-neutral. But unless the MTA comes up with new sources of revenue in the next six months, de facto service cuts or explicit service cuts may no longer be a proposition, but a certainty.

Further union concessions could also be on the table, as Nolan noted in November, and the agency already succeeded in getting $3 million back in voluntary rate cuts from 88 of its contractors, a suggestion from MTA CFO Sonali Bose that could yield more savings as the agency hears back from the remaining contractors. But an earlier staff proposal to extend parking meter hours remained conspicuously absent from Tuesday’s discussion. Such a move would not likely bring in revenue in time for the current mid-year budget shortfall, but could be a helpful source of income for the MTA in the future as state and city transit support becomes increasingly unreliable.

Director Shirley Breyer Black, a veteran of the MTA Board, wondered whether the suggestions arising from last year’s Muni revenue workshop couldn’t be brought back for further consideration. Those suggestions and more will be back on the table as the Board begins developing the agency’s 2011 and 2012 budgets on January 19, Ford said. By that time, customers will be paying more to ride dirtier buses, so the perception that the sky is not falling may start to ring a little less true.

  • The MTA board “braces” but no one at the MTA, the Board of Supervisors, or the Mayor’s office is doing a thing to replace the budget hole created by Arnie and the Democrats in the Legislature. So continue to watch Muni fail in the city that talks big about the environment and climate change, all the while running Muni into the ground and ensuring more people get in a car. Thanks for nothing, do nothing politicians!

  • Fran Taylor

    Instead of laying off PCOs, the MTA should hire more and set them to work ticketing cars parked on sidewalks. At $100 a pop and with perpetrators so pervasive the PCOs could crank out tickets as fast as their fingers could move, that strategy could generate a lot of money. And have we already given up on extending parking meter hours just because Newsom doesn’t want to hurt drivers in a difficult economic time? Screwing transit users is fine by him, but make a driver cough up a few more bucks — no way!

  • zsolt

    Fran said exactly what I was going to say. The number of parking offences in the city is gargantuan. Actually enforcing the law of not letting morons use the sidewalk as their personal parking lot seems to be a great source of revenue.

  • And if we follow Fran’s advice, parking becomes so much of a hassle that more turn to transit, meaning more demand better transit, and the wheels keep spinning the right direction. Let’s just do it!

  • Have you hugged your PCO today?

  • SFMTA is subject to a City imposed hiring freeze and has already been granted many exceptions likewise one of the reasons SFMTA Board members are asking what’s within their power to avoid layoffs is because ultimately control over their budget really rests with the Board of Supervisors who have the power to approve or veto the SFMTA budget.

    Extended metering hours doesn’t sound like politically acceptable and would have only been a distraction at yesterday’s meeting. Last year the Board of Supervisors opposed increased parking fees and fines (this is the one that really bothers me: Muni riders are supposed to suffer so those who park illegally don’t have to pay higher fines) and things are not likely to change until residents come forward to let their District Supervisors know you are not happy to have higher Muni fares and service cuts so drivers can have free parking on Sunday.

    Your District Supervisor might want to improve Muni service and make parking more expensive, but cow to car and business owners who demand free parking or will vote against them. Politicians ultimately want to stay in office and cater to what they think will get them the most votes. If they felt they were going to loose an election because they catered to car owners at the expense of Muni, there’d be a lot of support to increase the cost of driving in the City.

  • @Josh: I had a great experience with a PCO today. I was pedaling southbound down Octavia and encountered the construction at Oak. Equipment and material was blocking the street — not a safe route for bicyclists! — even though there are signs that say “bicyclists allowed.” Conveniently, a PCO pulls up beside me as I’m waiting at the red light. I waved and she rolled down her window. “Hey, look at that,” I said, pointing to the construction. “Don’t construction crews have to provide a safe route for cyclists?” Yes, she responded, “I’ll go talk to them right now!” And indeed she did, and got them to start moving stuff right away. I must have said thank you at least four times. If you can’t hug a PCO, at least give them a thumbs up. I always try to. They have a tough job.

  • Parking tickets have never been a stable source of revenue, and we can’t fine our way out of this mess.

    Impose a local vehicle tax, perhaps even a local gas tax, or something to make up that huge hole the State gave us. Nickel and diming people on parking tickets is a chickenshit way out – it allows people to say we can have all we need without taxes which is patent bullshit.

    The point of parking fines is to ensure safety first and punish people who are making our roads and sidewalks unsafe. Yes they don’t do this enough, but they are not bounty hunters. Until the transit advocates get that we won’t fine our way into stability, we’ll always be seen as jerks. And we’re not.

  • zsolt

    We can’t fine our way out… just as we can’t tax our way out or just as we can’t fare-raise our way out. I don’t think anyone here says that this would solve all our problems. But when the MTA has an 8 digit budget deficit, it seems highly interesting that basic laws are not enforced and tickets not given.

  • pat

    Someone make a Muni rider’s union to match the power of the muni employees union so we can get the sweet deals that the operators get. I am too lazy

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