Thoughts on the Budget Process

Written by FCJ Editor. Posted in Opinion, Politics

Published on July 28, 2009 with 23 Comments

Budget Chair John Avalos
Photos by Luke Thomas

By John Avalos, special to Fog City Journal

July 28, 2009

As the Board finally passes the 2009-2010 Budget, I wanted to share my reflections on the Budget process.

Over the last 10 years, I have been involved in the City’s budget process, first as the organizing director of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, then as staff for Supervisor Chris Daly, where I organized year after year with budget stakeholders to create a budget that represented the interests of working people.  These experiences have been invaluable in learning the intricate City budget process and, most importantly, the politically challenging but all-important process of coalition building among the different budget stakeholders in the City.

A Year Like No Other Year

Earlier this year, when I was appointed to serve as Budget Chair of the Board of Supervisors (BOS) on the same day I was sworn in as a Supervisor, I wondered if I was up for the challenge. The City was facing its worst fiscal crisis since the Great Depression and I saw myself facing a series of impossible choices with the potential for great political fallout.  The administration had already initiated mid-year reductions affecting key health and human services for San Francisco’s low income communities, as well as front line workers, especially in Rec. and Park, Public Health, and the Human Services Agency.  Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of additional cuts and layoffs were in the works.

From the beginning, I knew that the usual budget advocacy would not suffice given the enormity of the shortfall.  As early as February, I convened representatives from the different issue-based coalitions that traditionally work on the budget, including unions representing the most vulnerable City workers.  I shared with these activists the grim forecast for the budget and how, this year, it would not be good enough to simply be good advocates on their respective issues.   They needed to work together across sectors and issues and unite on common priorities.  They also needed to help me identify savings, inefficiencies, and new revenues to help us get through the crisis.

People Power

For the last five months, the advocates and activists did just that. They created a coalition of coalitions – the Budget Justice Coalition.  They set out to coordinate efforts and fight for a fair budget to protect the most vulnerable in our City.   The Budget Justice Coalition agreed to advocate for more than just funding specific programs, but to fight for and restore services supporting the City’s most vulnerable residents. Overall, the Coalition resolved to mobilize the people most impacted by proposed budget cuts.

From March to May, my office worked with activists to organize hearings and press conferences both inside and outside of City Hall. In these actions, we sought to ensure a transparent budget process and put pressure on the Mayor.  Working closely with Coleman Advocates, Senior Action Network, the Homeless Coalition, Domestic Violence Consortium, SRO Families Collaborative, SEIU 1021, and a broad array of neighborhood groups, we made sure that voices of everyday San Franciscans were at the forefront of the discourse over the City’s budget.


After the Mayor released his budget, the Coalition worked overtime to identify priority cuts to be restored, educate the public on the inequities in the budget, and mobilize public pressure on City Hall.  The last five months saw the largest and most sustained budget advocacy in San Francisco in recent years.  Below are just some of the highlights of those efforts:

  • March 26th: SEIU’s Big Ass March -Hundreds stopped traffic as they marched from 5th & Market to City Hall to protest lay-offs and demand new revenues.
  • April 2nd: Mission District March – Over 500 hundred youth, immigrants, and homeless service providers marched from 16th StreetBART to 24th Street BART Plaza.
  • April 16th: Immigrant Family Day @ City Hall – Hundreds of immigrant families filled City Hall to demand protection of immigrant rights services.
  • April 29th:Children’s Press Conference and Hearing – Children, youth and families demanded that City Hall continue services to maintain standards for San Francisco families with children.
  • May 8th: Mother’s Day Press Conference @ Women’s Building – Service providers, community leaders, and activists urged the Mayor NOT to slash funding for the City’s domestic violence programs.
  • May 12th: Silver Tsunami – Hundreds gathered to stage a sit-in to protect services for seniors and people with disabilities.
  • July 10th: Budget Justice Coalition – Close to a thousand San Franciscans from throughout the City marched from Hallidie Plazato City Hall to demand a fair budget.
  • July 17th: Dueling Rallies on the Interim Budget – Hundreds representing a cross section of the health and human services sector turned out overnight to call upon Fire and Police Departments to “share the pain” on an equitably balanced budget

Still Short

Despite being a largely symbolic move, the Interim Budget vote truly exposed the deep inequities in the City’s budget.  I personally took a lot of political heat for stirring up the hornets nest of the Police and Fire Departments’ unions.  While Local 798 may have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to run a field campaign, I was lucky to have the support of D11 residents who volunteered in my office to help spread our message about budget equity.  We were successful in convincing many concerned residents about the need for these unions to share the pain.  While the Interim Budget vote did not necessarily produce the savings we needed to fund all the priorities we had identified, it did set up the framework for us to trim unprecedented amount from the Fire and Police Departments,  $6.1M and $5M respectively, figures that previous Budget Committees have not even come close to.

Taking some political heat in the form of recall threats.

But as of June 29th, the night of the last Budget meeting to hear from departments, the Budget Committee had only identified $20 million in cuts to the Mayor’s budget, which would go towards stopping privatization of jail health services, custodians, public health security, and museum guards (Prop. J’s), and restoring cuts to essential services.  Stopping the Prop J’s alone cost over $20 million.

Late that same night, I met with the Budget Justice Coalition to get their input on priorities and strategies before President David Chiu and I headed into negotiations with the Mayor’s office.  Fully aware that the Mayor could simply refuse to spend appropriations made by the Board, I asked the advocates if they were willing to take the risk of going after the Mayor’s priorities in order to get to the dollar amount we needed to restore our key priorities.  The Coalition confirmed that they were willing to sustain the fight if needed.  Emboldened by this commitment, I went into the Mayor’s office and gave them an ultimatum that was tantamount to “we can do it the hard way or the easy way.”

By 1:00 am, the Mayor’s office was coughing up new savings and revenue to fund our progressive priorities.  By the night of July 1st, after 48 hours of active negotiations, we had $43 million to stop ALL the Prop J’s and restore over $23 million in other priorities – a feat that surprised all of us including the most ardent organizers of the Coalition.

As a result of this collaborative effort, we were able to keep all major shelters open 24 hours a day, restore key health services, maintain a single standard of care for mental health services, continue immigrant rights and tenant services, protect seniors from losing meal programs, prevent cuts to family support and violence prevention services, restore rec. & parks jobs, reject instituting charges to families for their child’s detention at Youth Guidance Center,  promote transit-first parking policies, set aside millions of dollars for job programs at the airport, port and SF public utilities commission, and many other progressive priorities.

While Randy Shaw may credit these achievements to some progressive miracle, getting the Mayor’s office to fork up another $23 million in those last 48 hours of negotiations was actually the result of 5 months of building a broad coalition, 3 months of endless hearings, weeks and weeks of grassroots organizing, over a dozen mobilizations, and hundreds of the most impacted San Franciscans speaking up for themselves.  As someone from the labor movement, I know full well that our victory was based not on our negotiating skills, but on the power and leverage built up by everyday people, organizing and speaking out on their own behalf.

Early in the budget process, I had set as one of my priorities the defunding of the Mayor’s pet projects, such as his press office, the 311 call center, and the Community Justice Center.  But, in the end, with the support and advice of those who put in the most work over the past 5 months, we opted for a “budget deal” that stopped all efforts at privatization and restored $23 million in health and human services and other progressive priorities.

Champagne Battle

The night of July 1st, when the Budget Committee approved the $43 million restoration package, should have been a night for Progressives to celebrate the culmination of months of hard work.  Instead people watched an emotional and divisive exchange between me and my former boss and close ally, Chris Daly.

Supervisors Chris Daly and John Avalos embrace.

Chris, a veteran of budget battles with Room 200 felt that I had been swindled and that the $43 million in restorations were “not worth the paper it was written on” without “insurance.”   To get this insurance, Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi moved to put the Mayor’s priorities on reserve.  Having just come out of negotiations where we basically got $23 million in exchange for not touching any more of the Mayor’s priorities, it would have been bad form for me to support this move.  Chris did not understand this.  Having suffered the brunt of the Mayor’s budget maneuverings for the last 2 years, Chris didn’t understand the position I was in, and could not celebrate the accomplishment that we achieved that night.

Chris and I have since talked about our differences in our approach and our tactics, and our expectations of each other as colleagues.  Like the Progressive community in the City, Progressive legislators also have differences in style and tactics.  We plan to settle our differences in a Baking Throwdown this Thursday.  It will certainly be an ongoing process for me to sort out the politics of friendship and politics with Chris.  While I was definitely hurt and disheartened by his personalized admonition on the night of July 1st, the importance of “insurance” or leverage was not lost on me.  Surprisingly, and despite his protest, Chris was successful in framing the “budget deal” as not good enough and pushed the Budget Committee to make additional improvements, such as the $45 million reserve.

At the end of the day, the Board of Supervisors passed a budget that truly represents the progressive values of most San Franciscans, including increased leverage for the Supervisors in the mid-year and for future budget battles.  Certainly, Progressives have a lot more to gain working together as a team instead of cutting each other down.  And, despite what outside observers might say, the final budget was the result of teamwork among progressives both inside and outside of the Budget Committee.

Fighting for the “Other” San Francisco

My legislative aides, Raquel Redondiez and Frances Hsieh and I, all proud Progressives from District 11, worked hard to stay true to the cause. Throughout the budget process, we kept our integrity and principles and sacrificed many hours to ensure the most transparent budget process to date.  We brought together City-wide advocates and mobilized our own D11 constituents (many of whom are not self-identified progressives) to fight for a just budget.

We shifted public opinion in D11 on the need for Police and Firefighters to share the pain. We have no doubts whatsoever about the great value of our work. Even though we weren’t able to prevent every layoff and service cut, we worked with a broad cross-section of our communities to build unity and strength to protect the services that San Franciscans care most about.

While balancing City-wide priorities, we were also successful in stopping the slashing of violence prevention programs in the OMI and senior services in the Excelsior.  Along the way, we also pushed back the decimation of the City’s community development investments with the merger of the 30 year Mayor’s Office of Community Development into the Office of Economic & Workforce Development.   Working with stakeholders from the most impoverished neighborhoods in the City, we lead the effort to develop a comprehensive vision for community development in the City and secured Board appointments to the Citizen’s Committee for Community Development.

While we have our share of detractors from the left and the right, we have no doubts about our accomplishments on this Budget and our work with diverse budget stakeholders (including our colleagues on the Board).   We will continue to work hard on new revenue measures, push for more government efficiencies, and stay vigilant to protect our hard-fought restorations.

Despite the headache, heartache, and heartburn of the last 6 months, I would do it all over again.  Serving as Budget Chair has given me the opportunity to deliver for District 11 and all underserved neighborhoods in the City.  I have been able to serve the most vulnerable families in the City and help build progressive power and unity not just for this budget battle, but for lasting progress in our City.

It is certainly not a perfect budget, nor a perfect process.  But for those interested in learning the truth, and the real lessons from this budget fight, it’s best to talk with the organizers on the ground.  There is still much to be done to develop the Progressive movement, and many more fights to win, one battle at a time.  I look forward to working collaboratively with people from both sides of the aisle, both sides of City Hall, and all sides of the City next year and for many years to come.


Comments for Thoughts on the Budget Process are now closed.

  1. More is involved in the Great Recession than the Lennar Corporation. See the link at the bottom for the global ramifications.

    More is also involved than mortgage failures on homes, although that has been one important factor.

    Since the end of WWII, much of the industrial world has been living beyond its means. That’s true of individuals, companies, and nations.

    Eventually, all such bubbles must burst.

    This one is bursting at the same time as economic productivity is leaving the Americas and Europe and moving into Japan and China. It will not return in the near future. Maybe never.

    Regardless of what happens with Lennar Corporation, a major restructuring of the the global economy is underway.

    None of the politicians down there at City Hall has a clue about how to deal with this development. Most have never even thought about it.

    How did we end up with this kind of leadership in SF?

    Here’s the link on the global impact:

  2. I appreciate all the Board’s hard work on this, but have to note that the Board, in its previous incarnation, played a major enabling role in the mortgage meltdown that triggered the derivatives disaster which triggered the hardest hard times since the Great Depression.

    How? By enabling and enriching the South Florida-based Lennar Corporation, with land grants and City funds. Lennar’s mortgage lending wing, UAMC, was a major player in the reckless, predatory lending spree that created the real estate bubble before knocking over all the dominoes that led to San Francisco’s budget crisis, and the California’s, and well beyond.

    And now, for playing such a large role in causing this much pain, here and elsewhere, San Francisco may even further reward Lennar with a chunk of pristine Hunters’ Point parkland, if Mark Leno’s Senate Bill 792 passes.

    I may have missed a vote, but I believe that Supervisors Daly and Mirkarimi have voted consistently against the City’s engagement with the Lennar Corporation, and that Supervisors Elsbernd, Alioto-Pier, Maxwell, and Dufty have consistently voted pro-Lennar, as did, I believe, former Supervisor Aaron Peskin.

    In Fog City, I’ve read accounts of Lennar’s unfortunate contributions to the San Francisco’s Democratic County Council.

  3. Marc,

    Thanks for your thoughtful post above.

    Some observations –

    You say:

    “the vested interests in the San Francisco economy are going to be whining for even more corporate welfare”

    Is this a reference to the corporations in the city’s nonprofit political complex?

    You say:

    “whenever there is a small constituency with a large profit, it is very difficult to pry them away from government long enough to evaluate that sector independently of any given particular interest”

    Is this a reference to the cannabis capitalists?

    You say:

    “San Francisco needs to address the cycles of boom and bust which have plagued our city for two centuries”

    Aren’t such cycles now an established feature of the entire global economy?

    You say:

    “our city government is not thinking about how to equip San Francisco with the economic tools required to promote sustainability and community stabilization.”

    Agreed! The governance of the city is in the hands of children.

    How did this happen?

    You say:

    “the political forces that think they own this City are organizing round the clock”

    Is this a reference to the unions?

    You say:

    “these people play for keeps and we don’t.”

    Is this a reference to Chris Daly’s flight to the suburbs?

  4. We can be sure that the vested interests in the San Francisco economy are going to be whining for even more corporate welfare, supply-side stimulus, while urging that the demand-side aspects of the budget be eviscerated.

    As is shown in the federal legislative process on health care, whenever there is a small constituency with a large profit, it is very difficult to pry them away from government long enough to evaluate that sector independently of any given particular interest with the goal of determining the best sustainable policy.

    San Francisco needs to address the cycles of boom and bust which have plagued our city for two centuries, and to develop a suite of policies that can adapt to the stresses which historically tear the fabric of our dense city to shreds and resist them.

    City government sees its goal as bubble enablers. Whether it is the Planning Department’s fixation on the luxury condo bubble, or the MOEWD’s fixation on flash in the pan economic sectors, our city government is not thinking about how to equip San Francisco with the economic tools required to promote sustainability and community stabilization.

    There is plenty of money in San Francisco to pay for city services required to keep us from becoming Calcutta, it is just that the political forces that think they own this City are organizing round the clock, spending thousands of dollars per day to thwart that.

    And if you don’t believe that they showed Avalos a local version of the Zapruder Film, or a detailed campaign plan to recall him, and asked if he had any further questions before signing up for the budget deal…these people play for keeps and we don’t.


  5. Answers to above questions from another of those anonymous posters whose lack of cojones may be attributable to presumed gender. Grow a pair or get a bikini wax. Get real or come clean
    1) Are you kidding !!
    2) See #1 above.
    PS. Typo in message above above – Should be ‘Red Ryder’ not ‘Red Rider’.
    Cowpokes and Sheppards will dig it.

  6. The city budget that was recently approved is only a stopgap measure. In a few months, the drastic cuts in the state’s budget will start having an impact in SF. It will be a sobering spectacle.

    Although SF has not been hit as hard as other parts of the state in terms of economic viability, that will soon change, too.

    The tourism industry lags behind economic changes because many tourists, especially those from other countries, make their plans a year ahead. But soon the local tourism industry will take a big dive, reflecting sagging economic conditions around the globe.

    Economic recovery will not happen soon. This is not just another recession. The global economy is making a major readjustment.

    Does anyone at City Hall have a plan to deal with these unsettling prospects?

    Are the politicians here even aware of the larger picture?

  7. So the Feds have given SFPD $16.5 million more of OUR money. No coincidence or surprise that this ‘announcement’ was not made public until after the budget ‘negotiations’ were completed. Remember the ‘negative report on Lennar’s financial ‘situation’ that was also held for release until after the votes were counted in the recent Prop F/G fight. Eric Jaye may be gone but Newscumspeak lingers on. What a shallow, deceitful, pretentious little prick Hairboy is.
    This sum was not factored into the ‘calculations’ of how OUR money would be spent. The BOS needs to go back to the abacus and do some refiguring, pencil chewing and head scratching. I aint no bean counter but it seems to me that $2-3 mill could easily be reallocated to Health and Human Services and SFPD would still be at least $14 mill better off than they expected. Add in all the fraud, waste and abuse in the Mayor’s Office and covert operations and, holy shit Red Rider, maybe some kids wouldn’t go hungry. less people would die in the streets or be forced into them, the sick and needy could get minimally adequate health care, ad nauseam.
    There’s still too much co-option, pussy footing, whealing ‘n dealing and shriveled cojones at the BOS.
    Room 200 needs fumigating and the vermin evicted.
    Pretty boy should be consigned to the trash heap of ineptitude and corruption.

  8. Marc,

    You’ll always be the smartest. Hope as reigning Top Prognosticator should design the next test for who wears the crown for the next year. Just don’t charge money to enter, OK girl? Is Clemens having another contest?

    Hottest ticket in town in Luke’s 1st Fog City baseball night with our boys taking on the World Champ Phillies Friday night. Call Luke if you aren’t aboard. He has several extra tickets and was talking about some kind of contest to give em away.


  9. Luke demonstrates again why Hope is the smartest political mind in San Francisco.


  10. “What the hell is Tiramisu?”

    Isn’t the Italian-American Social Club in the Excelsior?

  11. Thanks, Hope. I was still rubbing my eyes from slumber when I read Marc’s comment. I thought he wanted citations.

  12. Luke

    I think Marc means your sentence mistakenly starts with the word”if.” It realistically should read “WHEN Newsom breaks his promise….”

  13. “If Newsom breaks his promise, Chiu and Avalos can say they took the mayor at his word – but they will have egg on their faces, too, for trusting a mayor who has previously ignored veto-proof appropriations, including a $33 million affordable housing supplemental sponsored by Supervisor Daly.”



  14. What the hell is Tiramisu? I’m coming with my pumpkin pie and y’all’re welcome to bring the cool whip. That’s how we throw down in the E!

    H, smile. Life is good.

  15. City Hall Baking Throwdown, huh? My money is on Daly’s Magic Brownies versus Avalos’ Pakalolo Pie.

  16. Hey Chris,

    Apparently, we both love chocolate.

    I knew we’d bond at last!

  17. Yum yum!!

  18. Thursday’s Baking Throwdown is the next great Battle at the Board! This isn’t just for the Cake Cape, it’s for City Hall’s Baking Bragging Rights!

    You best believe the Daly Office isn’t fucking around, evanS .RhtuR!

    We’re talking tiramisu, macadamia nut banana bread, and vegan chocolate cake. It’s on, baby. You may want to clear the way.

  19. In a post above, Chris Daly says:

    “The Daly Office is not fucking around.”

    This is the line that Chris Daly will be remembered for, just as Aaron Peskin will be remember for this line:

    “Payback is a bitch.”

    Harvey Milk, however, said this:

    “You gotta give ’em hope.”

    How we miss you, Harvey.

  20. I will just say my disappointment in the budget deal was Avalos and Chiu throwing Daly’s charter amendment under a bus, and giving Newsom everything he wanted for his gubernatorial propaganda, in exchange for a vague promise that he will “collaborate” with the Board on future cuts.

    Sure, the restorations look good on paper, but there’s nothing keeping Newsom from raiding the restorations in the event the state budget impacts exceed the $45 + $18 million currently on reserve.

    If Newsom breaks his promise, Chiu and Avalos can say they took the mayor at his word – but they will have egg on their faces, too, for trusting a mayor who has previously ignored veto-proof appropriations, including a $33 million affordable housing supplemental sponsored by Supervisor Daly.

    On the other hand, if Newsom is good on his word, then fair play to Avalos, Chiu and Newsom for their efforts in achieving nothing short of a miracle in protecting the lives of the most vulnerable during an unprecedented fiscal crisis.

    Bottom line, we will continue to sing Walter Paulson’s “Budget Crisis Blues” until this economy turns around.

    Mid-year cuts? Hello!

    Now if only every City employee was willing to accept a sliding scale across the board salary cut, or voluntary workday furloughs…

  21. John,

    You and Chiu took the Budget deliberations away from the people. While we used to watch sessions that ran 16-20 hours, now we see a bunch of people sit down who already have a deal. I was disgusted to watch you glance quickly up and down the line of supes sitting on the committee and say: “This one we pass on without recommendation, right?”. You’ve moved smoothly into plutocracy and that’s a disappointment. You can’t carry Daly’s jock and never will.

    Making decisions out of public view back in your palatial offices with your friends is what only Willie and Gavin used to do. Why weren’t there cameras there?

    You can be ‘rolled’ as they used to say in the hood, kid. That’s a bad thing.


  22. Thank you, John, for your tireless work on the budget. While I don’t believe that the Mayor will make good on his promises to you, I still believe in you. Even though I was upset that my Charter Amendment was compromised in the budget deal, I understand why.

    This is a tough job.

    As you know, Legislative Assistance is also a tough job. I want to make sure that Tom Jackson is properly thanked for all of his efforts in helping to organize the budget coalition.

    With that said, you better bring it on Thursday at the Throwdown. The Daly Office is not fucking around.