[Hpn] Take back the budget

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Tue, 06 Feb 2001 17:25:28 -0700


http://www.sfbg.com/News/35/19/19oped.html

San Francisco BAY GUARDIAN
February 7, 2001
Editorials

Take back the budget

by rebecca vilkomerson

IN 1998 SAN Francisco's homeless families were increasingly desperate,
waiting for up to two months just to get into "emergency" shelter. In
response, a few community-based organizations spent several months of time
and energy getting a resolution passed by the Board of Supervisors stating
that no homeless family should be turned away from shelter in San Francisco.
Hundreds of homeless family members testified in favor of the resolution,
and it passed easily.

Unfortunately, that's not the end of the story. Two and a half years later,
there are still a hundred families waiting to access the homeless shelter
system, the same number as before the resolution.

This is just one example of the hard lesson that community-based, grassroots
organizations have had to learn: city policy is largely determined by the
city budget. For example, of General Fund money (money that has no strings
attached and therefore can be distributed in any way the mayor and Board of
Supervisors decide) available in the fiscal year 1999-2000 budget, 40
percent went to "public safety" (police and fire departments), while 11
percent went to social services and 19 percent to public health. So when
city spokespeople say, for example, that there is "not enough money" to keep
the pharmacy at S.F. General Hospital open, what they really mean is, "We
are choosing to use your money instead to put more cops on the street."

The idea to create a People's Budget was born out of the frustration of
seeing our money allocated without our input and without our needs in mind.
Now entering its fourth year, the People's Budget Collaborative is made up
of more than 40 community-based organizations that fight together for
democratization of the budget process, for greater budget equity, and for
funding programs that create permanent exits from poverty.

The People's Budget also includes proposals for increasing city revenue,
including putting an end to corporate welfare. For example, the city is
currently negotiating a $27 million tax-break deal with Bloomingdale's. That
subsidy, and others like it, translates directly into dollars that would
otherwise go into the General Fund and reduces the city's ability to fund
crucial programs. 

Every program in the People's Budget includes an analysis of potential cost
savings for the city. An investment in the people of San Francisco, whether
in the form of substance-abuse treatment services, the preservation of
affordable housing, the creation of quality child care, or paying a living
wage, ultimately saves the city money in hospital care costs, social
services, and income supports. For example, it's well documented that for
every dollar spent on substance-abuse treatment, seven dollars is saved in
costs such as emergency hospital treatment. However, city budget policy
doesn't allow for investing in programs that will reap fiscal, as well as
quality-of-life, benefits down the line.

Incorporating long-term planning into the budget process is just one idea we
have in mind. Changes in the tax structure and tax-assessment systems is
another. We also want to eliminate funding for programs that criminalize
homeless people, young people, and people of color. We have to fight to
maintain the funding for programs we won in previous years (almost $20
million last year) and continue to fight for the programs that the community
wants and needs, rather than sweetheart deals for downtown campaign donors.

All this adds up to a radical rethinking of the process and purpose of the
city budget, and thus city policy, so we have a lot to do. The People's
Budget Collaborative is only exactly as strong as the efforts of its
members. We need your help.

This year the People's Budget will have five categories: housing; health
(including public health and substance abuse/mental health treatment);
economic justice (encompassing fair wages, child care, transportation,
education, and training); civil rights; and revenue. We need more ideas,
more participation in strategy sessions, more connections with organizations
around the city, more attendance at budget hearings. We welcome anyone who
supports our principles and is ready to work.

Last spring the Bay Guardian editorialized, "any supervisor who would rather
help the mayor's cronies get even wealthier as the gap between San
Francisco's rich and poor gets ever wider should be voted out of office in
November." Well, that's pretty much what happened, and it proved two things:
we can take back the city, and the time is now. Please join us.

Rebecca Vilkomerson works at the Homeless Prenatal Program and is a founding
member of the People's Budget Collaborative. For more information about the
People's Budget call Riva Enteen at (415) 285-1055.


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