California

The Following Blog Post is Dedicated to the People of San Francisco, Who May Not Know it But They Are Very Poorly Governed…

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A delightful use of the copious space that alt-weeklys give their writers in SF Weekly, an amusingly detailed evisceration of the general incompetence of San Francisco city government. A brief survey of interesting details:

This year's city budget is an astonishing $6.6 billion — more than twice the budget for the entire state of Idaho — for roughly 800,000 residents. Yet despite that stratospheric amount, San Francisco can't point to progress on many of the social issues it spends liberally to tackle — and no one is made to answer when the city comes up short.

The city's ineptitude is no secret. "I have never heard anyone, even among liberals, say, 'If only [our city] could be run like San Francisco,'" says urbanologist Joel Kotkin. "Even other liberal places wouldn't put up with the degree of dysfunction they have in San Francisco. In Houston, the exact opposite of San Francisco, I assume you'd get shot."….

There's tales of bureaucratic incompetence and lack of fiscal probity:

Last year, the Civil Grand Jury could not find — we reiterate, could not find — up-to-date budget numbers for the city's Branch Library Improvement Program. The numbers that were available aren't pretty: Voters approved a $106 million bond in 2000 to rebuild 19 libraries, and $28 million more was ponied up by the state and private donors. That money was spent without a coherent building plan being formulated between the Library Commission and Department of Public Works — leading to such large cost overruns and long delays that the commission abandoned five of the projects. In 2007, the city went back to the voters, asking for another $50 million for libraries — without publicizing that this would fund the five unfinished projects voters had already paid for. Voters approved it. After all, who doesn't like libraries?….

In 2002, the San Francisco Chronicle revealed that the city had, for decades, been siphoning nearly $700 million from its Hetch Hetchy water system into the San Francisco General Fund instead of maintaining the aging aqueduct. Several mayors and boards of supervisors used that money to fund pet causes, and the Public Utilities Commission didn't say no. Unfortunately, spending maintenance money elsewhere doesn't diminish the need for maintenance. By 2002, the water system was in such desperate condition that voters were asked to pass a $3.6 billion bond measure to make overdue fixes. Obligingly, they did — who doesn't like water? Since then, the projected costs have swelled by $1 billion. So far…..

Tales of unsupervised good intentions run amok in the nonprofit/government nexus:

According to a 2009 analysis, San Francisco spends around 41 percent of its discretionary budget — about half a billion dollars — on nonprofits, mostly to provide social services for the poor, homeless, elderly, and others.

Many cities contract with nonprofits because it's cheaper than using city workers. Government is now paying the tab for services that used to be undertaken by families, churches — or, frankly, no one. But a 2009 University of San Francisco study notes that this city is to nonprofits what New York is to big musicals: "Per capita expenditures by operating nonprofits in San Francisco are almost double that of the rest of the Bay Area, and more than twice that found in Los Angeles or [the whole of] California."

We want the services. We're willing to pay for them, if they lead to good results. Yet whether our gargantuan investment is paying off is a question no one has an answer to. Hardly anyone even bothers to check…..

And as with any civic horror story, employee unions have their starring moment on stage:

You can't get San Francisco running efficiently, because that would require large numbers of unionized city workers to willingly admit their redundancy and wastefulness. Inefficiency pays their salaries….

This problem comes up almost every time the city negotiates labor contracts, which is part of the reason San Francisco is constantly on the brink of fiscal ruin. Politically powerful unions… negotiate contracts the city knows it can't afford. Politicians approve them, despite needing to balance the budget every year, because the budget impact of proposed contracts is examined by the Board of Supervisors only for the following year, no matter how long contracts run. According to former city controller Ed Harrington, it has become common practice not to schedule any raises for the first year of a contract, but to provide extensive raises in later years.

The result is a contract that looks affordable one year out, then blows up in the city's face.

The whole thing is worth reading, for students of government nonfunctionality and dirty hippies alike. I wrote about progressive weeping over the constantly changing city by the Bay back in Reason magazine's April 2001 issue.

Hat tip to Adam.

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  1. Best quote: “San Francisco is Disneyland for adults, or a place people go until they grow up.”

  2. It’s really remarkable that a city in California, of all places, could be in such a fiscal mess.

  3. Should we say that San Franciscans are being Milked?

    *ducks and runs*

      1. In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, Amen.

    1. One might prefer that to being Moscone(ied)! No I can’t tell you…let your imagination run wild.

  4. Great Eric Burdon and the Animals Reference. Thanks.

    But perhaps “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” would have been better:

    We gotta get out of this place!
    If it’s the last thing we ever do …
    We gotta get out of this place,
    ’cause girl, there’s a better life … for me and you

  5. …The city’s ineptitude is no secret. “I have never heard anyone, even among liberals, say, ‘If only [our city] could be run like San Francisco,'” says urbanologist Joel Kotkin. “Even other liberal places wouldn’t put up with the degree of dysfunction they have in San Francisco. In Houston, the exact opposite of San Francisco, I assume you’d get shot.”…

  6. Montgomery: “When a person dies and is buried, it seems there are certain voodoo priests who … who have the power to bring him back to life.”

    Carter: “How horrible!”

    Montgomery: “It’s worse than horrible because a zombie has no will of his own. You see them sometimes walking around blindly with dead eyes, following orders, not knowing what they do, not caring.”

    Lawrence: “You mean like Democrats?”

    …thank you Bob Hope!

  7. Goddam hippies.

  8. The Reason Girl and the ModCloth.com chick make me weep for the state of women today.

  9. Where’d my goddamn free wi-fi?!

  10. I’d say let the fucking morons that keep letting this happen deal with it. But ultimately I will have to unwilling give up some of my salary to save their sorry asses.

    I fucking hate hippies.

  11. This is what you get when you put liberals (retarded fetuses) in charge of anything.

  12. “I have never heard anyone, even among liberals, say, ‘If only [our city] could be run like San Francisco,'”

    There’s really not much more to say.

  13. Keep Stinking Rose and the actual Japanese restaurants.

    Relocate the Tenderloin to Oakland just to shake things up.

    Sink the rest.

    1. All of the good restaurants *are* moving to Oakland, because of the SF health-insurance mandate.

      And East Oakland doesn’t need any help from the ‘Loin, thank you very much.

  14. Oh, and there’s lots, lots more that the article didn’t cover: school janitors that make $100K/year, subsidized housing for illegal aliens, the previous mayor (Willie Brown) who supported a BART strike by stopping MUNI from running extra busses between stations, etc. etc. It really is a circus.

    A favorite example from about 10 years ago. A MUNI driver who took exception to two guys kissing on his bus, so he stopped and assaulted them. In any other job he’d have been fired and arrested, but belonging to the MUNI union meant he was suspended with pay while everyone figured out what to do about it. (Don’t know what happened in the end.) So yes, unions are so powerful here that city employees can commit an anti-gay hate crime on the job and get a paid vacation.

    1. Of course the guvmnt has made it so expensive to live in SF that a $100K/year janitor is still poor…

  15. It’s going to fall into the ocean someday anyway, so we have that to look forward to.

    1. Like the mystics and statistics say it will
      [But] I predict this hotel will be standing
      Until I pay my bill

  16. That last old link is still hilarious.

    Solnit […] drops an ominous hint at the end that the uprising of angry people who feel aggrieved by the recent influx of rich dot-commers will have shocking results.

    The “aggrieved” wouldn’t have been so enthusiastic about replacing all the black people in town with ironic glittery unicorn stickers if they wanted an “uprising.”

    Whitey is Whitey.

  17. Being a resident, I can only say:
    “It’s worse than that.”
    (and I’m proud to state the not one current or past office holder ever got my vote)

  18. Why not put the Hell’s Angels in charge? Could it really be any worse?

    Portland isn’t far behind SF.

    1. Altamont, Altamont, Altamont.

  19. “I have never heard anyone, even among liberals, say, ‘If only [our city] could be run like San Francisco,'”

    They come damned close in Seattle. Damned close.

    1. Oh come on, Paul. Seattle has a bunch of clown shoes crap like every other city, but it’s not San Fran bad. You want to see bad? Try Paterson, NJ, for instance.

  20. In 2007, the city went back to the voters, asking for another $50 million for libraries ? without publicizing that this would fund the five unfinished projects voters had already paid for. Voters approved it. After all, who doesn’t like libraries?….

    And yet, it’s exactly the government they deserve…

  21. These are the same morons who continually re-elect Nancy Pelosi. No surprise.

  22. Isn’t Houston actually a pretty liberal city?

    1. The urban core of Houston is fairly to the left compared to most of Texas but Houston is the most unique city in America in terms of its political structure. It’s really a mix of enclaves each of which has its own character. This create an interesting mix.

      For example, the city just elected a fairly conservative lesbian mayor.

      1. Sounds nice. Thanks for the info.

  23. I think there is a feedback loop that causes government efficiency to degrade as its size relative to its jurisdiction increases. Once a certain threshold of the percentage of the population dependent on government spending is reached, those people have enough power to drive the very spending they benefit from. Since, just like the rest of us, they try to get the most pay for the least work, they actively decrease the efficiency of government operations. These organized and concentrated interest have political influence far larger than just raw numbers would suggest.

    I think it is a spectacularly bad idea to allow compulsory public employee unions to participate in politics at all. This puts the unions in the position of choosing their own bosses and their own paychecks. Such a system is doomed to collapse eventually.

    1. Public sector unions should be illegal. If they can’t be made illegal, then their pay contracts should come before the citizens for direct vote.

      1. And yet, that’s exactly what SF has done. Note that schools, police, firefighters, and libraries have all secured their funding through mandates voted in by the populace.

        1. No, we do not get to approve contracts (i.e. pay and benefits). And the local media is always rather cagey when the contracts are negotiated. You’d think the details of pay and benefits would be news, but it’s usually hard to find.

          1. PapayaSF|12.17.09 @ 8:32PM|#
            “No, we do not get to approve contracts (i.e. pay and benefits)”
            Not true; the benefits at least (firefighter’s retirement benes) were voter-approved

        2. Absolutely true. As noted in the article, bonds get passes for a purpose, it doesn’t get done, new bonds are put on the ballot for the same purpose and get passed again.
          The Firefighters got a great deal playing on the hero-worship post 9-11. *Very* clever PR.
          The difference between Dems and Repubs can be argued in most places; here, it’s totally irrelevant. The winner is the winner of the Dem primary.

    2. It’s not so much a feedback loop; it’s more that it causes the political influence and government spending to increase exponentially rather than linearly. So even though, let’s say, there are 4 times more government employees somewhere than a number of years ago, government spending has gone up much more than 4x.

      It can’t be sustained forever.

    3. Re: Shannon,

      I think there is a feedback loop that causes government efficiency to degrade as its size relative to its jurisdiction increases.

      In order for the efficiency to be slowly degraded, there must be efficiency to begin with – since when in the history of civilization has government being efficient, on anything (except snuffing people out)?

      1. It’s not even efficient at killing people. Why do you think Predator drone video feeds can be hacked using off-the-shelf software, and the military keeps investing in $700 combat staplers?

        1. What got me was that the military didn’t bother with encryption because it thought that our opponents (and here I pictured the briefing officer muttering “stupid fuckin’ ragheads” under his breath) wouldn’t realise that the transmissions could be intercepted.

          1. See, I have the vision of the contractor saying: “You want encryption? That’ll add another zero to the price tag.”

            1. …And the government official accepting the contractors bid saying; “Hey, add 5 more zeros if you want, it’s being paid by the government anyway”

  24. “We have some hippies out there in the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco. One of them, the other day, was giving some advice to his companions. He said, ‘You know, your parents take care of you until you’re 21; the government takes care of you after you’re 65; you’ve only got 44 lousy years you gotta look out for yourself.’ This fella that was doing the talking had a haircut like Tarzan, he walked like Jane and smelled like Cheetah.”

    Reagan’s hippie today would be talking about the federal government because the state and city are currently not able to (with your tax dollar) take care of their own grotesque needs.

  25. Government is now paying the tab for services that used to be undertaken by families, churches ? or, frankly, no one.

    And with government being government, it is more lavish with these expenditures than either families or churches.

    Interesting comment at the end: Just who asks for these services the government “offers” (or makes one use)? If these services did not exist before, what’s more likely: That people were simply too stupid to realize they could not have sustained civilization without them (thank you, Government!), or that really nobody wanted them to begin with?

  26. In 2007, the city went back to the voters, asking for another $50 million for libraries ? without publicizing that this would fund the five unfinished projects voters had already paid for. Voters approved it. After all, who doesn’t like libraries?…

    Well, I don’t like paying so others can use them. But since I do not live in SF, I can at least feel more fortunate than those poor SF saps…

  27. Where’s Tony when a story like this runs? I’m sure that the San Franciscans have nothing but liberal good intentions when they elect their politicians. The problem is that “liberal good intentions” is defined as “the belief that you can get something for nothing.”

    1. This must explain all those ‘Potter for Mayor’ websites.

      1. Is that as in Harry Potter? If so, it just shows the magical thinking most voters at least try to hide a little…

  28. After all, who doesn’t like libraries?

    Me. And everyone else with an internet connection.

    But I’m not saying get rid of libraries. Just close them to the public and fill them wall-to-wall with books.

    Carbon Sequestration.

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