Cuts in funding for two popular community programs are raising questions about whether San Diego's new executive-mayor form of government is asserting too much power.
In its 2007 budget, the City Council earmarked money for both the Alpha Project's “Take Back the Streets” program—under which homeless adults are paid hourly to do community clean-up work—and the Blue Level Swim Program, a citywide competitive swimming program for kids ages 5 to 17. But at last Tuesday's City Council meeting, council members learned from two citizens that the city's Park and Recreation Department is ending the swim program on Dec. 1, due to declining participation, and, of the $300,000 that was supposed to go to fund Take Back the Streets, the Alpha Project would get roughly one-third of that amount while the city's Environmental Services Department plans to use the remaining money to pay for similar clean-up projects.
During the meeting's lunch break, Andrea Tevlin, the city's independent budget analyst, fired off an e-mail to the City Council:
“The Mayor's Office has made a service level cut and a budget change unilaterally without bringing it to the council,” she wrote about the swim program. “They cannot do this without returning to the council for your authorization.
“This is a complete violation of this form of government from my understanding,” Tevlin told the City Council.
Tevlin noted at a Budget Committee meeting last week that $300,000 was earmarked specifically for Alpha Project's Take Back the Streets. “That's what was approved” in the city's 2007 budget, she said.
Tevlin acknowledged there could be good reason for the budget changes, but the lack of transparency concerns her.
“These are service-level changes that you approved, and we've got to have clarity on this budgeting process,” she told Budget Committee members. “I don't know what's been included in the budget compared to what [the City Council] approved.”
Bill Harris, a spokesperson for Mayor Jerry Sanders, said that although the City Council might approve program-specific funding, it's up to city departments to decide how that money is spent; under the new form of government, city departments report to the mayor.
“On any given day they're making decisions about how to best allocate the resources they've been granted by council,” he said. “The decision-making about how to best administer that budget is, in fact, charged to city staff, which is now under the mayor.”
In an April 7 memo to Sanders, Councilmembers Jim Madaffer, Brian Maienschein, Ben Hueso and Council President Scott Peters lauded the Take Back the Streets program and asked that the mayor's office look for “approximately $300,000 to continue this critical service citywide.
“Without the daily work performed by the Alpha Project, we believe the trash on the streets, alleys and open spaces will increase dramatically,” the memo said.
Take Back the Streets had been funded by Community Development Block Grants, federal dollars handed down to local governments by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This year, though, HUD ruled that CDBG money couldn't fund such a service. Under HUD guidelines, 85 percent of CDBG money is to go to so-called “bricks and mortar” projects while the other 15 percent is to go to social services. The Alpha Project program falls under the latter category.
“The city was already maxed out on the 15 percent in social-services programs,” Madaffer told CityBeat. “As a result, the council unanimously directed that... we would replace [Take Back the Streets' CDBG funding] with general-fund money, instead.”
Harris, the mayor's spokesperson, said that whenever general-fund money is involved, the city's labor-union agreements come into play.
“When there's the opportunity or the possibility that city [workers]... might be able to provide the services, they, in our agreement with them, are allowed to look at how they might do that.” In this case, he said, Local 127 officials told Environmental Services that they could do the work more efficiently than Alpha Project workers.
“Environmental Services [is] duty bound to work with 127 to honor that agreement.”
CityBeat asked Harris whether the labor-union agreement trumped the City Council's budget allocation. Harris said it came down to the fact that the budget said $300,000 should go to Take Back the Streets' clean-up projects and not to the Alpha Project specifically.
But isn't Take Back the Streets Alpha Project's program?
“That's what we call the program, and that's how it's become known,” Harris said, “but there was no recommendation [that the money] go specific to Alpha; it was to keep funding the program.”
Bob McElroy, who heads the Alpha Project, disagrees, citing Tevlin's comments at last week's committee meeting.
“I started [Take Back the Streets] in 1986, long before it was ever funded by the city,” he said. And as to the efficiency argument, “We produce 10 times the work the city does.... The mayor talks about privatization, well here's a perfect example of it.”