Commentary: Sandra Fewer

How the City’s Budget Works

There has been a lot of news lately about the city budget, even though budget season has not officially started yet.

The conversations about whether or not to fund $27 million in additional police overtime, the funding of nonprofit organizations, reparations, etc., has been used to separate people instead of educating them on the city budget. It is important to not only hear “sound bites” about the budget but to truly understand where your tax dollars are going and how a city that has a budget of $14 billion uses its dollars efficiency or inefficiency. It is important to note that the city budget defines the mayor’s priorities and, in turn, her ability to run a big city like San Francisco with a budget that is larger than some countries.

Using numbers from the 2022-2023 budget, we can see that the City approved a budget of almost $14 billion. Since San Francisco is a city and county (the only city in California to be a city and county), the budget includes things like jails and hospitals as well as civic functions, like police, fire and social services. The budget is a result of being an incredibly wealthy district with a significant tax base. The City passes a “rolling” two-year budget and must pass a balanced budget annually.

There are more than 50 city departments. Approximately 50% of the budget consists of self-supporting activities from enterprise departments like the Port, Public Utilities Commission, Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA), Airport and others. The other 50% comprises the City’s General Fund, which supports public services such as public health, youth programs, police and fire services, public works and social services.

In the 2022-2023 budget, there was $6.7 billion in the General Fund. In addition to this calculation, there are “set asides,” which are voter-approved funds set aside for particular uses, such as the symphony, libraries, etc. Since these funds have been voter approved, the mayor cannot use these funds as part of the General Fund. There is also $2.1 billion that is earmarked for state and federal revenue and reimbursements for mandated uses (MediCal, CalFresh, etc.) That leaves out of a $13.6 billion budget, only $2.6 billion in discretionary General Funds, or money to be used by the mayor to fund city services and programs.

The process starts with the mayor in December when she gives departments her budget instructions. The mayor has until June 1 to submit her budget to the Board of Supervisors, and the Board has only one month to review and approve the budget. The mayor always has the first bite at the budget. The mayor presents her budget, the Board of Supervisors then reviews her proposed budget and seeks out inefficiencies that can be repurposed as “add backs” to the budget. This usually amount to totals between $40 million and $50 million.

As you can see, the vast majority of the city budget is defined by the mayor. The Board of Supervisors has a very small amount of General Funds to allocate to specific programs or areas of need that they collectively support. In the Richmond District, where we only have a handful of non-profit organizations and less homelessness than other districts, we benefit less from the General Fund than other districts of higher needs.

I know there have been arguments made to eliminate district elections. This is one reason we need to have district elections if we want our share of city services and the city budget. We need to have someone advocating for our neighborhood, our specific needs, and that means having someone at the table to ensure the city budget serves us out here on the west side too. That goes not only for the city budget but also from city departments like MTA, public health, public works, etc. While downtown gets its streets power washed twice a day, we need our streets cleaned on a regular basis, too. While Union Square has multiple police officers on every corner, we need to have beat officers on our commercial corridors to serve our small businesses. While downtown has a fire suppression system to protect it from fires, we need a system out here too to protect our homes. The list goes on and on.

The question we should ask is: “How much of the General Fund directly benefits our neighborhood and where and how are services being allocated?”

Using the budget for political attacks on our supervisor is made to separate us and does not make us stronger as a neighborhood. We want our representatives to ask questions on our behalf, to advocate for our neighborhood, and that is exactly what the “powers that be” don’t want as it questions the decisions on use of city departments and the General Fund. I am not saying that downtown is not important, but the west side of the City matters as much as downtown and our small businesses are just as important as downtown businesses. Supervisor Chan was right to push back and ask questions. As budget season begins to ramp up, we want and need her to ask: “Where is District 1 in the city budget?” and we as taxpayers should support that line of questioning … for all of us out here on the west side.

Sandra Lee Fewer is a fourth-generation Chinese-American San Franciscan, former Board of Education commissioner, former member of the SF Board of Supervisors representing the Richmond District and has lived in the Richmond for more than 60 years.

2 replies »

  1. Thank you for this information. It’s important to understand the process of how the wheels turn in City Hall, and how to remedy the problem of scarce services on the west side.


  2. The former supervisor hints that the mayor bears the largest responsibility for our budget mess. The majority of D1 voters probably agree- the mayor is ineffective. But neither the author ( a former supervisor) nor the current supervisor seem interested in challenging the system either. The ugly truth is that the primary goal of this government is to keep the public workers well paid and permanently employed, and to funnel money to special interests like the Homeless Industry, the Bike Coalition, and other non-profits in exchange for supporting the politicians. Good schools, safe and clean streets, modern parks, a good business environment for small businesses, building desperately-needed housing – those things would be nice as long as they don’t get in the way of the goal of serving the system. The author insists that without a D1 supervisor, D1 residents would really be neglected by the “powers that be”. But even when the money was pouring into the system, the Richmond District was neglected. The author rightly demands a greater police presence, as D1 residents and D1 businesses all feel under siege by crime and mentally ill people terrorizing us. But these conditions existed long before the SF economy went into the dumper, and now the police force has a 500 officer deficit, so we won’t hold our breaths waiting for additional police presence. The next time we vote, let’s reflect on how we ended up here. Perhaps it’s time to challenge the system.


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