Don’t Let the Politicians Raid Muni’s Budget for Pet Projects
Time to reform the “Work Orders” that let politicians divert funds earmarked to make Muni faster and more reliable. Sign our petition today!
By: Phil Ting
Three times in the last 12 years voters have shown their support for dedicated funding for the Municipal Railway and other transportation reforms. On the strength of this public support and dedicated funding, our local political leaders have promised to improve reliability to a charter-mandated goal of 85% on-time performance for Muni’s buses and streetcars.
The Municipal Railway has never met this goal – and in the past few years the on-time performance has been getting worse, not better. This isn’t news to anyone who rides the deteriorating system. But what might be news to many of the long-suffering passengers of the Municipal Railway is that local political leaders have been taking an increasing amount of funds that voters dedicated for Muni improvements and have been using them for other projects.
These transfers of funds are known in City Hall jargon as “Work Orders.” And they have increased from a recent low of $30 million in fiscal year 2001-2002 to a high of $66 million in fiscal year 2009-2010. So now you know one of the reasons why your N Judah, 38 Geary or L Taraval are so crowded and so often late.
What happened to SF Muni?
First of all, some costs did increase, and the San Francisco Municipal Railway, like all city departments, pays for some of its services from other departments through the work order process. But why is more than double the money being taken out of Muni while fares were going up and service is being cut?
When voters approved ballot measures dedicating funds for Muni, they did it because they understand this city simply can’t function effectively without a functioning Muni. We can’t grow our economy, protect our environment or safeguard our quality of life without unclogging our streets.
The voters spoke clearly. But did City Hall listen?
A quick look at the rapid growth in work order diversion of funds from the San Francisco Municipal Railway to other projects shows the answer to the last question is, unfortunately, “not always.”
That’s why it is time to reform the work order loophole that allows our government to fund other priorities using money that should go to improving the speed and reliability of Muni.
Roll Back and Cap the Work Order Budget
Among San Francisco’s many pressing needs, voters themselves decided to make Muni a top priority.
That’s why we must end the process of funding other projects with Muni funds. And that’s why I propose rolling back the Muni work order budget to the decade low of $30 million, plus inflation – which would be $38 million 2011 dollars.
This could cause pain in other departments. For example, Muni sends millions of dollars each year to fund the city’s 311 system. While 311 is a fine system, the city could operate with a less robust system, there are other options. The voters did not vote to earmark funds for 311 – they voted to earmark support for a better Muni.
Other work orders that must be addressed include the tens of millions that have been paid out to the City Attorney over the past decade. Yes, Muni needs great legal services, which our excellent City Attorney’s office provides. But Muni’s budget should not be a honey pot for funding other priorities.
There are small items that should be addressed. For example, the Muni budget should not fund staff members in the Mayor’s office. While this amount is small, the precedent is dangerous.
There are certainly many technical issues to be addressed, as the City Controller found in a recent audit of the work orders. In many cases, bills were being sent without any back up whatsoever and the audit found many other non-standard and potentially wasteful practices.
And there are certainly tough calls, like the funds that Muni spends on our police department, which was $12.1 million in 2010. While policing is a high priority, is it fair for Muni to transfer so much money the voters earmarked for Muni to the police department? Other departments don’t pay work orders to the SFPD. Why should Muni?
The answer to why Muni funds are being transferred in such large amounts to other departments is pretty clear. Because that’s where the money is. And as budgets have become tougher and tougher over the past decade, the Mayor and Board of Supervisors have essentially been borrowing funds that should have been dedicated to Muni and used these funds for other priorities – some of which are vital priorities and some of which are political pet projects.
Transparency is Key
But the problem with this budgeting practice is that it flies in the face of what should be a fundamental priority – transparency. If voters approve funds for Muni, those funds should go to Muni, not to other projects like the 311 Center. If 311 and other projects are a priority, we should ask voters to fund them.
At our recent Muni Town Hall, which brought together nearly 300 San Francisco Muni riders to discuss reform, the issue of transparency came up again and again. Riders are not only frustrated with the poor service; they are frequently angered over what amounts to more than a decade of broken promises. We need to stop promising a better Muni and start delivering it – and that starts with stopping the practice of diverting Muni funds for other purposes.
The Greatest Civic Return on Investment
While rolling back the work orders would certainly cause pain in the short term – in the very near term, the Civic Return on Investment would be significant. I believe rolling back the work orders and investing the recovered funds in increasing service and reliability would more than pay for itself.
The fastest way to balance our city budget and fund all of our top priorities is to grow our economy and put more San Franciscans back to work. This is not possible unless we can transport our workforce quickly and reliably. One of the greatest single impediments to growing our economy is our congested streets. Businesses will not locate here, and San Franciscans will not want to stay or work here, if we don’t improve our quality of life by improving our system of transportation.
While I do believe we should ask the voters to consider even greater dedicated funding for transit, I don’t think voters would or should approve new funds unless they can be guaranteed that those funds are all being spent to unclog our roads and speed up an affordable and reliable system of public transportation.