SFMTA Board Approves Two-Year Budget by 4-3 Vote; Muni Cuts Extended

1700544798_6c26575b38.jpgMuni riders warned the SFMTA Board that buses are already packed -- even before 10 percent service cuts arrive in May. Flickr photo: John 'K'

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board approved a budget for the next two fiscal years today that continues Muni service cuts into 2012, setting up a possible confrontation with the Board of Supervisors.

After close to two hours of public testimony, the board approved a $749.5 million operating budget for fiscal year 2011 (FY2011) and a $768.8 million operating budget for fiscal year 2012 (FY2012) by a 4-3 vote -- without any changes to what SFMTA staff had proposed.

That means the 10 percent Muni service cuts the board approved in February to balance the agency's budget through the end of the current fiscal year, June 30, will now extend into fiscal year 2011. Half that service will be restored in fiscal year 2012 under the plan.

But today's vote is far from the final word on the budget. Next, it will go to the Board of Supervisors for approval, where it's likely to meet a cold reception from progressives, who have insisted the SFMTA reverse the service cuts. If they balk at the budget, it could set up a back-and-forth between the supervisors and the SFMTA similar to the budget process a year ago.

Just a month ago, it appeared the agency faced projected budget deficits of at least $52.7 million for FY2011 and $45.3 million for FY2012 -- even after cutting close to $30 million in service, or about 10 percent. That eased up considerably when news came in last month that the SFMTA would receive $36 million in state transit aid next year, and $31.5 million in FY2012.

Combined with cuts already made to balance the deficit in the current year, as well as an improving economic picture forecasted for FY2012, the agency quickly had a much less gargantuan deficit to cover.

"This two-year budget has no fare increase in the coming fiscal year," said SFMTA Executive Director Nat Ford, looking on the bright side. It "assumes a restoring of half of the 10 percent scheduled changes."

But the windfall from the state also took pressure off the agency to look at revenue streams that face opposition from Mayor Gavin Newsom and other groups, including extending parking meter enforcement hours and consolidating bus stops. Many of the speakers today lamented that, with state funds flowing in, the agency didn't continue to aggressively seek new funds and reduce work orders from other departments before cutting service.

The chamber was packed with members of the public, many of them wearing headsets for translation of the meeting into Cantonese or Spanish. Dozens were members of a coalition of groups including Community Tenants Association, the Chinatown Community Development Center, People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), and the Chinese Progressive Association. The ANSWER Coalition also turned out numerous speakers.

Those groups addressed a theme of avoiding service cuts to the most transit-dependent neighborhoods, especially Chinatown and the Mission. Several speakers also criticized the SFMTA for paying the police department for some duties that the agency already performs itself, including fare inspection.

"I urge you not to balance the budget deficit on the back of low-income transit dependent neighborhoods," said CTA President Hoi Chong Wong. For most Chinatown residents, he said, transit "is a necessity, not a choice."

More Attention for the Mayor

In the wake of last week's SF Weekly cover story, which detailed the Mayor's heavy-handed involvement in the SFMTA budget, many of the speakers pointed to the Mayor's culpability in the service cuts.

Cutting service while seeking to increase transit ridership "makes the Mayor and you all, as his appointees, hypocrites," San Francisco Transit Riders Union organizer Dave Snyder said. He also handed out a series of budget proposals to avoid service cuts.

Two of the three dissenting votes on the budget came from directors whose terms expire at the end of the month -- James McCray and Shirley Breyer Black. The third came from Bruce Oka, who has given impassioned speeches against service cuts and fare hikes in the last few months, but perhaps cast his most defiant vote today.

"I thought today I was going to hold my nose and vote for this, but I may not be able to," Oka said to applause from the chamber.

"I cannot sit by anymore and watch full bus after full bus after full bus pass up people waiting in wheelchairs."

The Mayor has asked directors to leave for much lesser acts of defiance in the past, so Oka's vote added some genuine drama to a day that otherwise followed a fairly close script.

Director Malcolm Heinicke, who voted for the budget, said the agency should be holding hearings at every meeting to determine how to fully restore service. "I think this has to be the [priority] of this agency over the next two months," he said.