The Worst-Managed City

Ask progressives what they think is the nation’s most-progressive city, and many are likely to mention San Francisco. Not coincidentally, the progressive SF Weekly argues that San Francisco is also the nation’s worst-managed city.

Welcome to San Francisco, where per capita budgets climb halfway to the stars.

The city spends more than $8,000 per capita, compared with less than $7,200 by New York and less than $3,000 by Philadelphia and Denver. The Weekly suggests that most of the difference is waste. (In San Francisco’s defense, San Francisco is a combined city-county government and its budget includes a lot of services, such as public transit, not included in Philadelphia or Denver budgets.)

Still, “even other liberal places wouldn’t put up with the degree of dysfunction they have in San Francisco,” says faithful Antiplanner ally Joel Kotkin. “In Houston” — which both Kotkin and the Antiplanner admire — “I assume you’d get shot” if you did so poorly.

There are a lot of problems with the city, but one of the biggest is public employees unions. Unions were probably important in providing workers with a balance against large corporations. But the potential corruption of unions with the dysfunction of government is a recipe for disaster.

“The intrusion of politics into government pushes the city to enter long-term labor contracts it obviously can’t afford, and no one is held accountable,” says the Weekly.

This is particularly apparent in relation to Muni, San Francisco’s transit agency. “Job protection for even the most obviously unfit Muni workers is among the strongest in the city.” When the city tried to reform the transit agency in 2007, the union threatened to spend millions opposing the ballot measure if any union protections were weakened.

“You can’t reform the city charter without winning an election,” says the Weekly; winning an election requires union support; and unions — almost by definition — don’t want major reform.” As a result, “San Francisco is constantly on the brink of fiscal ruin.”

San Francisco is not the only place where this is a problem, of course. In Portland, that other Mecca of progressivism, the transit agency has granted unions the most generous health care benefits in the industry. As a result, in just a few years, more a third of the agency’s entire budget will go to health care.

Meanwhile, the Weekly also complains about San Francisco’s housing programs, which offer low- and moderate-income families with housing at below-market rates. Naturally, there are restrictions — not always explained to buyers — on reselling such homes at market rates, but these programs — which would not even be necessary were it not for progressive land-use planning throughout the San Francisco Bay Area — are ripe for manipulation.

Contrary to frequent implications in the Weekly articles, these problems are not due to incompetence. Instead, they are the predictable result of government management of things that can and should be managed more efficiently by the private sector.

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15 thoughts on “The Worst-Managed City

  1. Spokker

    The worst part is that bus drivers are paid very well for what they do, and they still offer terrible service. I expect terrible service from the idiot working the counter at McDonald’s, but for what we pay bus and rail operators we should be getting service with a smile. In Los Angeles Metro had a big scandal where drivers would refuse to pick up disabled passengers. An investigation by a local news channel put a disabled guy at bus stops and found that he was passed up 40% of the time. Man, it’s part of their job and they still didn’t stop.

    Not to say that the private sector could do any better on service, as everywhere I go employees look like they want to kill themselves. Even Disneyland, once the mecca of good service, generates so many complaints in regards to service these days.

    At least we’d be paying them less for this shitty service.

  2. the highwayman

    I see it too, a lot of people just seem fed up/burned out.

    Years ago I once worked at a grocery store, one time I stayed an hour after the store had closed & my shift ended so a client could get a tow truck, I can’t remember what problems their car had. I waited with them till the truck came, kept them company also if they had to use the rest room.

  3. C. P. Zilliacus

    Randal, I think the District of Columbia (the city in which I was born) still gives San Francisco a run for its money in the category of municipal mal-functioning. Not for nothing did the decidedly liberal Washington Monthly magazine run an article entitled The worst city government in America – Washington, D.C.: When it comes to screwing the poor and feathering their nests, the District of Columbia’s bureaucrats take the prize, way back in January of 1989. And while “Mayor for Life” Marion Shepilov Barry, Jr. is no longer Mayor, he’s now Councilmember for Life, secure in his seat representing Ward 8 of the city for as long as he wishes to (nice work if you can get it, serving on the D.C. Council is a part-time job with a full-time annual salary of about $100,000)

    And misbehavior by D.C. municipal employees continues. Just the other day, a D.C. police detective pulled his service weapon on a group of city residents who dared to throw snowballs at his Hummer SUV.

    Wonder why he wasn’t fired long ago for owning and driving such a vehicle on the streets of D.C., given the statements that D.C. politicians and activists make against drivers of SUVs generally and Hummers in particular? Shouldn’t he have been walking or riding a bike or taking the Metro?

  4. Neal Meyer

    Antiplanner,

    In Houston, our overall City budget is about $4 billion for 2.2 million residents. The Harris County has a budget of about $1.5 billion for another 1.8 million residents, so yes we are cheap down here compared to San Francisco. There are 23,000 city employees, so unions, though they are a factor, do not overwhelm the local political scene.

    We do have an elected city controller who has to certify that funds are there before city council can spend them, our main check against runaway governmental abuse. The controller can also audit city departments.

    The main problem we have, as with other cities, are pensions for city employees. Our soon to be ex-mayor sold pension bonds to cover short term shortfalls totaling some $643 million over the past five years. Arguably, because of our unfunded pension issues, Houston is broke.

  5. Mike

    Wow, as though AP was reading my mind. Seems only yesterday we were discussing the effect of union coercion on the cost of transportation services.

    The union’s natural enemy is the cartel. Eradicate the cartel, and the union has no raison d’etre and will fall into disuse.

    Paradoxically, the Republicans have had it within their power to eliminate unions, tools of their adversaries, all along — but they have never been willing to crack down on their incestuous corporate buddies, enforcing the existing array of antitrust laws, etc. This is why I don’t mind so much seeing them get swept from power last year, even though the victors have bungled things even worse. I just hate seeing failure rewarded.

  6. the highwayman

    Mike said:
    Wow, as though AP was reading my mind. Seems only yesterday we were discussing the effect of union coercion on the cost of transportation services.

    The union’s natural enemy is the cartel. Eradicate the cartel, and the union has no raison d’etre and will fall into disuse.

    Paradoxically, the Republicans have had it within their power to eliminate unions, tools of their adversaries, all along — but they have never been willing to crack down on their incestuous corporate buddies, enforcing the existing array of antitrust laws, etc. This is why I don’t mind so much seeing them get swept from power last year, even though the victors have bungled things even worse. I just hate seeing failure rewarded.

    THWM: That’s the irony, O’Toole’s job is to defend the cartel.

  7. Dan

    Madison WI is also labeled as very progressive, do they also have the same mis-management?

    Them Southern States suck more tax money in than pay out. That’s pretty bad mis-management if’n you ask me. And most of these places found best places to live in are Progressive, so they must be doing a good job of management. Ah, well.

    DS

  8. Mike

    Highwayman,

    That is not irony. (Neither is it true, but whatever.) It’s ok, man… if Alanis Morissette can’t get it right, I don’t expect a random blog troll to do any better.

  9. Frank

    “…the potential corruption of unions with the dysfunction of government is a recipe for disaster.”

    Absolutely. For a shining example, look no further than the National Education Association, the largest union of government workers in the country.

    “Job protection for even the most obviously unfit Muni workers is among the strongest in the city.”

    Same for teachers across the country: elementary teachers who teach reading and writing but are functionally illiterate; high school history teachers who make $65,000 a year to show video after video after video; teachers who have sex with their students. The ineptitude, incompetence, and pedophilia in public schools runs a muck, but the NEA is there to shield them from accountability or even evaluation.

    Students’ minds and panties are one thing; public safety is another.

  10. Spokker

    SF is like this place where there are so many rules and regulations, and yet nobody gives a shit about them. I mean, they go out of their way to enact rule after rule after rule in regards to everything, but nearly everyone is violating those rules. It’s hilarious.

    There’s a series on the Bay Area news called “People Behaving Badly” and guess what, it’s all about San Francisco. http://www.youtube.com/user/TVman1981

  11. C. P. Zilliacus

    Mike wrote:

    > Paradoxically, the Republicans have had it within their power
    > to eliminate unions, tools of their adversaries, all
    > along — but they have never been willing to crack down
    > on their incestuous corporate buddies, enforcing the existing
    > array of antitrust laws, etc. This is why I don’t mind so
    > much seeing them get swept from power last year, even
    > though the victors have bungled things even worse. I
    > just hate seeing failure rewarded.

    Mike, for much of the past decade, the Republic Party was in control of the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches in Washington, yet its elected representatives failed to reform even the most-egregious provisions in federal law when it comes to labor:

    - The Davis Bacon Act; and

    - Section 5333 (b) of the Federal Transit Law (often still referred to by its old place in the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964, Section 13c.

  12. Mike

    CPZ,

    Absolutely right. As I said, they have had it within their power to genuinely defeat their enemies (and solve some huge problems in the doing) and have utterly failed to do so. Accordingly, I don’t weep for their 2006-2008 defeats.

    The Republican Party cites Reagan as their iconic champion, but it was Reagan’s inclusion of the religious fundamentalist bloc, and the altrust morality they espoused, that caused them to become the disaster they are today. Instead of being Barry Goldwater’s party of economic restraint and social mind-your-own-business-ism, the modern Republicans are every bit as big-government big-spending seize-power force-you-to-do-it-our-way as the Democrats. They’re wearing different jersey colors, but they’re playing the same game. It’s an inevitable consequence of accepting altruism, a morality of suffering and death, as one’s guiding philosophy.

  13. C. P. Zilliacus

    Mike wrote:

    > Absolutely right. As I said, they have had it within their
    > power to genuinely defeat their enemies (and solve some
    > huge problems in the doing) and have utterly failed to
    > do so. Accordingly, I don’t weep for their 2006-2008
    > defeats.

    As a registered Democrat, I do not usually weep for Republic Party defeats.

    > The Republican Party cites Reagan as their iconic champion,
    > but it was Reagan’s inclusion of the religious
    > fundamentalist bloc, and the altrust morality they espoused,
    > that caused them to become the disaster they are today.

    The main, but not the only, reason I am a Democrat is because of the Republic Party’s dominance by religious fundamentalists and gay bashers (for the record, I am straight).

    > Instead of being Barry Goldwater’s party of economic
    > restraint and social mind-your-own-business-ism, the
    > modern Republicans are every bit as big-government
    > big-spending seize-power force-you-to-do-it-our-way
    > as the Democrats. They’re wearing different jersey
    > colors, but they’re playing the same game. It’s an
    > inevitable consequence of accepting altruism, a morality
    > of suffering and death, as one’s guiding philosophy.

    Even though I am more favorably inclined toward some forms of government-run or government-mandated social welfare, notably universal health insurance (or funding of same, since Ronald Reagan signed into law the federal unfunded mandate called EMTALA that hospitals provide free care for everyone if they want to “participate” in the federal Medicare program, which funds health car for the most-lucrative customers for most hospitals), I still agree with you.

    Consider that Canada, Denmark, Finland and Sweden all rank pretty high on measures of economic freedom even though they manage to fund health care for all or very nearly all of their citizens.

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