Saturday, September 10, 2016

Billions of dollars flow to SF’s army of city workers

Billions of dollars flow to SF’s army of city workers

By Heather KnightAugust 27, 2016 Updated: August 27, 2016 2:59pm

Photo: David Paul Morris, Bloomberg

Mayor Ed Lee has presided over a postrecession boom in city government.

Once you pick your jaw up off the floor after learning San Francisco’s budget totals an astounding $9.6 billion this year — more than the budgets of 13 states and scores of countries around the world — there’s an obvious question.

Where does all that money go?

By far the biggest chunk goes to pay city employees. Almost half — $4.7 billion — is spent on the salaries and benefits of 30,626 city employees.

How many workers is that? A little more than the population of Burlingame. Enough to provide one worker for every 28 San Francisco residents. Enough to fill three-quarters of the seats at AT&T Park, which — considering the way the Giants are playing — soon might be a great turnout.

The average San Francisco worker makes $108,774 in salary and $49,864 in benefits, including medical, dental and vision care and pension contributions. An income of $108,774 is just over 150 percent of the median salary in San Francisco.

Of course, San Francisco city salaries vary widely. A starting custodian makes $49,270, and a starting junior typist makes $44,798. That’s far less than the city’s top dogs, including the mayor ($302,400), fire chief ($311,194) and the police chief ($316,732). No wonder acting Police ChiefToney Chaplin wants the job full time.

The percentage of the city’s budget that goes toward city employees has remained at about half for many years. A decade ago — before the recession prompted cuts of all sorts — the budget totaled $5.7 billion, and the city’s 27,162 employees consumed 52 percent of that money.

The city’s workforce shrank by about 1,000 during the recession, and MayorEd Lee has gradually added 4,500 employees during his 5½ years in office. Next year’s budget is projected to add 300 workers.

Since taking office, Lee has added more than 300 people to the Police Department, 1,000 people to Muni and 1,100 people to the Department of Public Health. He’s added a few dozen apiece to the libraries and parks, and 13 to his own staff. This year’s budget includes 30 more people to clean the streets.

“The mayor puts personnel and resources where the people want — and the people want a safe city, a healthy city, a clean city and a prosperous city,” saidDeirdre Hussey, spokeswoman for Lee.

She pointed to more street cleaning, more reliable public transit, better health care, more police officers, faster paramedic response times, more library hours and more housing as concrete results of those investments.

Still, 30,626 seems like an incredible number of workers for a small city with services that, to put it politely, vary in quality.

Joel Engardio, a candidate for supervisor in District Seven, said he hears the complaint all the time. About two-thirds of the residents in the West of Twin Peaks neighborhood are homeowners, and many complain they don’t know where their $15,000 in annual property taxes go, Engardio said.

“People are feeling like they are being used as an ATM at City Hall,” he said. “I don’t think city residents feel that much love from the city workers serving them — it seems like a black hole. You don’t see it or feel it in your everyday life, except for frustration.”

We know what he means, but we will give a shout-out to the friendly librarians at the Glen Park branch, the (mostly) friendly drivers of the 36-Teresita Muni bus line and the firefighters who wave and ring their bells for little boys as their trucks go rumbling past.

Believe it or not, the proportion of the city’s budget that goes to pay for employees is fairly standard. It’s just that our budget is so much bigger than most cities per capita, thanks to the economic boom and swelling tax base.

Tracy Gordon is a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center who specializes in state and local governments’ budgets. She said salaries and benefits usually consume about 48 percent of a city’s budget.

The outlay is big because most city functions are heavily labor-intensive and voters tend to judge city government on how many police officers are patrolling their streets, how quickly their bus comes and how many people care for their parks. But as employees’ negotiated contracts mean higher wages and more expensive benefits every year, the total cost swells.

“Local governments have to pay more to maintain the same level of quality over time,” Gordon said.

Jason McDaniel, associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University, said this can put mayors in a bind. Voters want all those services, but they’re not happy when they find out exactly how much it costs to pay all those salary and benefits packages.

“I think it’s better to not know how the sausage is made,” he said with a laugh.

Supervisor Scott Wiener, one of the more fiscally moderate members of the board, said it’s important to pay city workers good salaries so they can live in or near San Francisco and be more invested in it.

He added that City Hall is working hard to remedy “some bad decisions” made decades ago in promises to employees about pension and retiree health care payments. Three ballot measures have passed in recent years to slowly help bridge the gap between what’s been promised and what’s on hand.

Depending on their salaries, city employees pay 9.5 percent to 12.5 percent of their paychecks to the retiree health care and pension funds. Wiener said when he became a city worker — a lawyer in the city attorney’s office in 2002 — he paid nothing toward either.

“We’ve been able to get on a good path in terms of solving those problems,” he said.

Wiener said he wouldn’t defend every single hire made in the last five years and that he knows 30,626 workers sounds like an awful lot.

“I certainly understand why that number would be surprising to people,” he said. “But people need to keep in mind how expensive the city’s operations are.”

They weren’t always so expensive. The oldest city budget we could find online through the controller’s office was the one that went into effect July 1, 1989. Back then, the city’s budget was $1.2 billion — a mere $2.33 billion in today’s dollars.

But then again, the No. 1 song that summer was “Right Here Waiting” by Richard Marx. So things weren’t all good.

Heather Knight is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer who covers City Hall politics. Twitter: @hknightsf

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