The San Francisco Weekly proclaims San Francisco The Worst-Run Big City in the U.S.
Despite its good intentions, San Francisco is not leading the country in gay marriage. Despite its good intentions, it is not stopping wars. Despite its spending more money per capita on homelessness than any comparable city, its homeless problem is worse than any comparable city’s. Despite its spending more money per capita, period, than almost any city in the nation, San Francisco has poorly managed, budget-busting capital projects, overlapping social programs no one is certain are working, and a transportation system where the only thing running ahead of schedule is the size of its deficit.
It’s time to face facts: San Francisco is spectacularly mismanaged and arguably the worst-run big city in America. 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.
Who is to blame for this city’s wretched state of affairs? Yomi Agunbiade, that’s who. Metaphorically, that is.
An engineer by trade, Agunbiade was appointed by Mayor Gavin Newsom to head the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department in 2004.
During his reign, an audit revealed, rec centers frequently didn’t open, because staff simply didn’t show up — and the department had no process to do anything about it. Good news: New rec centers were slated to open. Bad news: Agunbiade’s department had no plan for how to staff them. But that wasn’t enough to cost Agunbiade his job.
When the city controller’s office made the common-sense recommendation that groundskeepers ought to be where they were assigned to be when they’re supposed to be there, Agunbiade fought them on it for three years. Running a department where no one knows where anyone is — and no one even wants to know? Not a problem.
Minus the alleged [sexual] harassment [see article for details], city government is filled with Yomi Agunbiades — and they’re hardly ever disciplined, let alone fired.
Accordingly, millions of taxpayer dollars are wasted on good ideas that fail for stupid reasons, and stupid ideas that fail for good reasons, and hardly anyone is taken to task.
The intrusion of politics into government pushes the city to enter long-term labor contracts it obviously can’t afford, and no one is held accountable. A belief that good intentions matter more than results leads to inordinate amounts of government responsibility being shunted to nonprofits whose only documented achievement is to lobby the city for money. Meanwhile, piles of reports on how to remedy these problems go unread. There’s no outrage, and nobody is disciplined, so things don’t get fixed.
Here are a few examples of the best of San Francisco at its worst.
Finding books in the library is easy: There are logical, organized systems in place. Finding where the money to build libraries went — that’s hard. 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 2007, the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) held a seminar for the nonprofits vying for a piece of $78 million in funding. Grant seekers were told that in the next funding cycle, they would be required — for the first time — to provide quantifiable proof their programs were accomplishing something. The room exploded with outrage. This wasn’t fair.
There are two lessons here. First, many San Francisco nonprofits believe they’re entitled to money without having to prove that their programs work. Second, until 2007, the city agreed. Actually, most of the city still agrees. DCYF is the only city department that even attempts to track results. It’s the model other departments are told to aspire to. In the meantime, the city is spending about $500 million a year on programs that might or might not work.
Job protection for even the most obviously unfit Muni workers is among the strongest in the city. Peskin had proposed increasing the percentage of employees who could be fired for incompetence from 1.5 to 10 percent. But if that provision were included in the measure, union reps said, they would flood the “No on A” campaign with money and volunteers. “This is a union town,” one transit worker warned. “And we expect it to stay that way.”
Peskin caved. He had to. This is a union town. You can’t reform the city charter without winning an election; winning an election requires union support; and unions — almost by definition — don’t want major reform. It would be a paradox — but that would contravene a number of union bylaws.
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. “It’s been going on for decades,” Peskin says.
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 — the progressives are beholden to the service unions; moderates cater to police, firefighters, and building trades; and Republicans … what’s a Republican? — 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. City employees receive up to 90 percent of their already generous salaries in pensions and many also receive lifetime health care — meaning that as they retire, labor costs soar.
Special interests “go to the voters and say, ‘Do you like libraries? Do you like children?’ Well, of course they do,” Harrington says. And if voters don’t care to think through the fiscal ramifications — well, neither do their elected representatives. “The board likes children, too — so does the mayor.
Research by professor Bill Watkins of California Lutheran University over the past decade reveals that San Francisco is shedding its middle-class population at double the state rate. The city, however, is not losing low-income people at nearly the state’s pace — and is gaining wealthy residents at far more than California’s overall rate. In short, we are replacing our middle class with a rich elite and a burgeoning underclass. Watkins’ research also reveals that San Francisco is going gray. The number of city residents between ages 45 and 64 has climbed, while the count of those aged 20 to 44 has dropped. The city, it seems, has become a target destination for the wealthy and retirees. These are not the people who want to make sacrifices now to shore up the city’s future.
When everybody is politicking but nobody is accountable for the results, waste happens; unevaluated programs happen; Yomi Agunbiade happens — and nothing is done about it. After he resigned in disgrace, the Board of Supervisors, astonishingly, passed a resolution commending him for his years of service. He was offered the job of manager of San Francisco’s wastewater improvement program. San Francisco tried to keep Agunbiade on the payroll, even after years of mismanagement, damning allegations of sexual and religious harassment, and potentially exposing the city to a massive lawsuit.
Those are lengthy snips but they come from a six page article, well worth reading in entirety, filled with still more examples of striking incompetence.
There were over 100 comments to the article. Here were two that I liked.
Dave Boz – comment #25: “Despite its spending more money per capita on homelessness than any comparable city, its homeless problem is worse than any comparable city’s.” The word ‘despite’ should be replaced with ‘because of.’ It’s the miracle of the market (that so many lefties denigrate): San Francisco has increased the demand for bums by expending great sums on them, and the market has responded by supplying them.
Concerned Renter – Comment 105: Brilliant article! The single largest problem with San Francisco and California as a whole is the unions. They rule the state and the city and there is no system of checks and balances, nor are they held accountable. I won’t even get started on the non-profits, having worked for two of them. The cost of living here on top of the exorbitant child care costs, a school system that is hemorrhaging students and is one of the worst in the nation and the simple fact that there are more dog parks in the City than playgrounds, makes it clear that San Francisco is not a kid friendly city.
Lesson of Thidwick the Moose
I can add little to the above comments other than suggest it is time for someone to stand up to the unions and the freeloaders and say enough is enough.
San Francisco, please meet Thidwick the Big Hearted Moose.
Mike “Mish” Shedlock
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