Muni Gets $7 Million from TA for Budget Balancing Act — With Conditions

3567122999_7ccc716ba7.jpgFlickr photo: ricky.motalvo

With the help of the Board of Supervisors acting as the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (TA) Board, Muni got a step closer today to finishing out fiscal year 2010 in the black, but there are major strings attached. In return for sending $7 million to the city’s transit agency, the supervisors expect Muni to reduce a planned 10-percent service cut by half.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which operates Muni, is already planning to roll out the cuts on May 8, but Supervisor David Campos said he’s not convinced the agency has turned over every rock for alternatives to service cuts.

"I would simply say that I respectfully disagree in terms of how far the MTA can go with respect to reducing the service cuts," said Campos at a special meeting of the TA’s Plans and Programs Committee this morning. "I think there are a number of ways without increasing fares to do that."

SFMTA Executive Director Nat Ford presented his agency’s case before the committee. Coming up with the $14.4 million necessary to halve the cuts for next year would be a "pretty challenging effort," said Ford, but he didn’t rule out the possibility. "Maybe there’s an opportunity as we continue to deliberate."

The most promising opportunities to restore service would be concessions from the Muni operators union and further work order reductions from other city departments, Ford said. Campos pointed to both of those as well as to extending parking meter enforcement hours as areas he’d like the SFMTA to look at more closely.

The $7 million transfer comes from Proposition K funds that the TA had planned to spend on helping Muni replace part of its vehicle fleet several years from now. Instead, it will go to the SFMTA’s Bus and Trolley Targeted Systems Overhaul Program, helping to reduce an outstanding deficit of $11.5 million through the end of this fiscal year.

While Supervisor Carmen Chu argued that the transfer request was not unprecedented, and thus shouldn’t come with special conditions attached, TA Executive Director José Luis Moscovich disagreed. "This is an unprecedented request," said Moscovitch. "That doesn’t mean we don’t support it."

"This money is going to be missing from what’s going to be needed to match federal funds when Muni needs to replace its fleet in several years," he added.

Ballot Measure Battle

Another challenge to the motion to attach conditions came from Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, who is collecting signatures for a ballot measure that would remove Muni operator pay and benefit guarantees from the City Charter and require them to be set through collective bargaining, as is the case with other city employees. Elsbernd chided his colleagues for focusing on work orders and other revenue sources instead of controlling operator expenses. He also questioned whether it made sense to require the SFMTA to come up with almost $15 million in order to reap a $7 million allocation.

"In exchange for $7 million in one-time capital money, we want you to give us $15 million in ongoing money," said Elsbernd. "Certainly if such an offer was ever made to me, I’d tell you to take a hike, because it sounds pretty silly."

Board of Supervisors President David Chiu and Campos agreed with Elsbernd that union concessions were an important part of the budget solution, but Supervisor Chris Daly and Elsbernd entered into a sparring match over Elsbernd’s ballot measure, with Daly accusing the campaign of having "racial undertones."

"I think that Commissioner Elsbernd is going to have to answer as to why he is picking on a bargaining unit that is disproportionately African American or black," said Daly. He pointed to the Police Department as a city agency with a more heavily white staff that also has a large payroll, but hasn’t come under as much scrutiny from Elsbernd.

Elsbernd objected with fire to Daly’s claim, pointing to the fact that the Muni operators were the only union with salaries set in the City Charter. The debate is hardly new — SF Weekly pointed out in 1995 that Mayor Frank Jordan appeared to take a racial tack to targeting the Muni operators in the early 1990s, and campaigns targeting operator salaries since then inevitably draw comparisons, whether fair or not.

The TA Board ultimately approved the allocation unanimously and approved the conditions to that allocation by a 6-4 vote, with Supervisors John Avalos, Campos, Chiu, Daly, Eric Mar, and TA Board Chairman Ross Mirkarimi voting for the motion, and Michela Alioto-Pier, Bevan Dufty, Chu and Elsbernd voting against. If the SFMTA fails to stave off the cuts, it will have to return to the TA Board and attempt to convince its members that stopping the cuts would be financially impossible.

  • Nick

    This is fiscally irresponsible and yet MTA management finds it as something they should be proud of.

    Aside from stealing from the next generation, suppose a city bus costs $70,000. MUNI could have bought 100 new buses with that $7 million. But they didn’t….and a a few years from now when their 100 worst busses break down, we’ll have another defacto round of 10% service cuts.

    (MTA has a fleet of 1000 buses total, take 100 out of service and “MUNI death spiral” starts sounding accurate)

  • Nathaniel Ford and the MTA cannot be trusted at all with the MTA’s finances. The CTA shouldn’t have given them the money. Nate Ford also tried to illegally annex the CTA into the MTA, in violation of the law (sales tax money has to be administered by elected officials). If all that money was under MTA control they’d give Ford a 600,000/year salary and they’d loot the MTA more for gavin’s cronies.

    Daly’s an ass. And a fool. He’s also outta there soon so who cares what he thinks?

  • This is interesting. I know have a second theory as to the 10% cuts. The MTA kept them on the board to milk $7 million out of the CTA. I just wonder how this will work with Nat Ford’s narrative of running MUNI operations as low as possible through cuts to ensure FTA approval for central subway funds.

    Are there any strings that can be enforced with this money? What if the MTA doesn’t use it to reduce the cuts but instead uses it to push the parking meter extension further down the line? The CTA can’t think they are going to get that money back. Once it is in the belly of the beast, it is there to stay.

  • Alex

    @Nick buses cost about $500,000 (hybrids cost more), LRVs $4+ million.

  • JohnB

    It’s good to agree with folks here for once. This smacks of the same type of financial gimmickery that is all too commonly used these days at all levels of government up to DC.

    This subsidy is a sleight of hand which is unsustainable and probably counter-productive. It also takes money from other services without much debate or thought. It’s a gut reaction.

    I like the idea of MTA being forced to find additional cuts. But without a clear mandate to attack the 8000 pound gorilla in the room i.e. operator pay, benefits and working practices, they’ll be chasing after pennies in an undignifed, greedy and ultimately futile exercise.

    IOW, business as usual, I suppsoe.

  • Nick

    That’s funny, they don’t maintain them as if they were $500,000 vehicles. How about cleaning them once in awhile?

    Is there a reason in their contract that they can’t hire the youth of the city to clean them and gain job experience at the same time? They had 4 people on Irving Street the other night picking up gum wrappers. Seems like a misalignment of resources.

  • JohnB

    Nick

    The guys picking up on the streets are from the sheriffs diversion program – they clean streets over jail time.

    I have no idea why the buses are always so filthy but somehow it seems appropriate. My wife refuses point blank to take a bus because of the squalor and the number of crazies on them.

  • rich415

    it sure is funny how you want drivers to give concessions now and then when the fix muni petittion passes you will gut their work rules, and take more so why on earth would the operatorsgive anything up right now knowing that there going to be raped at the barganing table.