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.