Five days after Muni enacted the largest service frequency cut in its history, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors took up a budget discussion that could determine how long those cuts last.
At a hearing before the supervisors’ Budget & Finance Committee yesterday, dozens of riders testified against the service reductions, urging the supervisors to reject a two-year budget that would extend the cuts into the coming years.
Several supervisors on the committee said they were willing to do that if the board of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni, doesn’t come back with an improved budget.
"My hope is we can get to the point where rejecting the MTA budget is no longer an issue," said Supervisor David Campos. "We have an obligation to find a way to come together to be on the same page."
Campos and several of his colleagues on the board have called on the SFMTA to come back with a budget that lessens the 10-percent service cut, which the agency expects will reduce its costs by $28.8 million in the coming fiscal year. Instead of the cuts, those supervisors have pushed for alternative budget-balancing measures, including reducing work orders from other departments, extending parking meter enforcement hours to evenings and Sundays, and putting a revenue-generating measure on the November ballot.
Short of that, Campos said he’s prepared to support a resolution, introduced by Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, to reject the budget. That would take seven votes among the eleven supervisors.
"Unless we have these discussions, for many of us, we’ll have no choice but to vote for the resolution to reject the budget. I hope we don’t get to this point, but the ball is in your court," Campos said, directing his comments at the SFMTA.
The SFMTA board voted in February to cut overall Muni service hours by 10 percent, a move intended to help balance a budget deficit that had opened up for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. Last month, the agency’s board approved a two-year budget for fiscal years 2011 and 2012 that would be balanced in part by extending the cuts in full for a year. The budget would return half the service in the second year.
Now, the Board of Supervisors is in the delicate position of having an up-or-down vote on the agency’s budget, with limited room to influence the budget’s details. As the supervisors discovered during the budget process last year, a "no" vote isn’t a very appealing option, since the agency would then simply continue operating with its current budget — which already includes service cuts.
Any deficit in the budget would be made up by an appropriation from the city’s general fund, further complicating the city’s overall budget picture. The supervisors have never rejected the SFMTA’s budget since Proposition E created the agency in 1999.
In response, Supervisors Campos, Ross Mirkarimi and Eric Mar are likely to introduce a reform measure for the November ballot by Tuesday that would give the supervisors a more meaningful role in the budget process, possibly by giving them the power to approve the budget item-by-item, instead of the current all-or-nothing vote.
But even though rejecting the budget has its pitfalls, Campos and others are hoping the threat of rejection — not a pretty picture for the SFMTA, either — will be enough to spur the transportation agency’s board to come back with a budget that restores service sooner.
"We cannot have our circulatory system fail," said Supervisor John Avalos, who argued that the city was not meeting its duty to "pull people out of their cars."
"When it comes to riding Muni, "some people have a choice and some people don’t have a choice," said Avalos. "People who do are going to opt out. Those who don’t and use Muni are going to see less and less of what they expect out of good service."
A wide range of riders — including those who have a choice and those who don’t — spoke up at the meeting.
"Many of us rely heavily on public transit to get around in San Francisco," said Guang Wu Chen, President of the Ping Yuen Residents Improvement Association, speaking through a translator. "Public transit is not a choice but a necessity."
Members of the Community Tenants Association, Chinatown Community Development Center, People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), and the new San Francisco Transit Riders Union also filled the City Hall legislative chamber. Public comment was almost exclusively focused on urging the supervisors to reject any budget that includes service cuts.
The supervisors will continue the MTA budget discussion in two weeks.