Supes Introduce Measure Aiming to Bring Accountability and Money to Muni

IMG_2016.jpgThe first day of a 10 percent service cut on May 12. Muni riders will have more to ponder at the platform with a new reform measure on the November ballot. Photo: Michael Rhodes

Four members of the Board of Supervisors introduced a ballot measure [PDF] today that would bring sweeping changes to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni.

The measure, coauthored by Supervisors David Campos, Ross Mirkarimi, Eric Mar and Board of Supervisors Present David Chiu, would attempt to address many of the chronic issues at the SFMTA, including its governance, revenue and labor practices.

"[The measure] takes a comprehensive approach to the issue of transforming our public transit agency," said Campos, introducing the measure at the full Board of Supervisors meeting today along with its coauthors.

If approved by voters in November, the measure would give the supervisors power to appoint three of the seven SFMTA Board members. The Mayor -- who currently appoints all seven members, with confirmation from the Board of Supervisors -- would still get to appoint three members. The seventh director would be nominated jointly by the Mayor and the president of the Board of Supervisors. Four of the appointees would be required to be regular Muni riders before and during their tenure on the board.

The measure would also send an estimated $40 million in property tax revenue to the SFMTA annually, setting aside 2.5 cents for each $100 of assessed property valuation from the annual property tax levy for the SFMTA. That wouldn't solve all of the agency's fiscal problems, but it would be more than enough to cover the roughly $29 million gap the SFMTA is filling next year with a 10 percent service frequency reduction.

"We know that new resources have to be part of the solution," said Chiu, who introduced the revenue component of the legislation.

Tony Winnicker, a spokesperson for Mayor Gavin Newsom, called the move a power grab by the supervisors, who he argued already have enough say over the SFMTA Board, since they can reject the Mayor's picks. "They don't exercise their options fully now," said Winnicker. By splitting the appointments, he said, the measure could actually dilute accountability.

As for the $40 million in property tax revenue, Winnicker said it would be a "direct hit on the general fund," adding, "That's robbing Peter to pay Paul."

In addition to the new revenue, the measure would seek to control the SFMTA's costs. Work orders from other city departments -- which cost the agency $65 million this year -- would have to go through a public hearing and findings process, and each work order would need to have a written contract laying out its terms. That process would be managed by an "Inspector General" or "Independent Auditor" for the SFMTA, said Mirkarimi.

Chiu said the Inspector General would report directly to the SFMTA Board, and would serve as a "watchdog for Muni riders" to insure that Muni service is being delivered efficiently. He pointed to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia as examples of cities that already have similar oversight positions.

On the labor side, the measure would remove language in the City Charter that sets Muni operator salaries at the average of the two highest-paying transit agencies in the country. Instead, their salaries would be set through collective bargaining. That could help control operator salary costs, but perhaps more importantly, it should give SFMTA management more leverage to renegotiate work rules.

That provision is similar to the centerpiece of a ballot measure being advanced by Supervisor Sean Elsbernd. "Clearly there needs to be some attention on labor reform," said Mirkarimi. He added that the supervisors would continue to work with the operators' union to "refine this process."

The supervisors would see their role in the budget process bolstered by the measure, as they'd need a six-vote simple majority to reject the SFMTA's two-year budget, instead of seven as is required now.

But the new measure would also give the supervisors the power to adopt findings to support their decision to reject the budget, which the SFMTA Board would then have to consider before returning with a new budget. For now, the SFMTA Board doesn't have to submit a new budget if the supervisors reject what they initially submit.

Finally, the measure would give the supervisors more say over service reductions. For now, the supervisors have veto power over any plans to abandon routes, but not over service frequency reductions. Under the measure, the term "route abandonment" would expand to include "reductions in any particular line by more than three service hours/day and reduction of more than 5 percent of total system wide transit service hours."

In other words, the ten percent service cut enacted by the SFMTA to balance its mid-year budget deficit would no longer be so easy, since a similar cut would require approval from the supervisors in the future.

The supervisors worked on the pieces separately without consulting each other directly, said Chiu, since Brown Act rules limit how much they can collaborate on such measures. Many of the suggestions, including the Inspector General, are responses to concerns raised in two recent audits of the SFMTA.

Campos said the measure also reflects ample input from members of various advocacy organizations and community groups, including the San Francisco Transit Riders Union, People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), the Chinese Progressive Association, the Chinatown Community Development Center, Livable City, SFBC, Walk SF, and the Senior Action Network. Many of the groups are part of the MORE Public Transit coalition as well.

Several of those groups have actively opposed Elsbernd's measure, but the labor provision in the measure introduced today is more limited in scope than Elsbernd's, so it may be more palatable. "I believe this charter amendment goes far in addressing the situation involving labor," said Chiu, thanking Elsbernd for getting the discussion started.

Chiu and his colleagues hope the greater accountability and labor reforms built into the measure will help sell the revenue component. That $40 million infusion would "make us a truly Transit First city," he said.