Scraping bottom

Muni plans for layoffs, fare hikes, and service reductions meet with resistance
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The job of scrubbing down a city bus after it's gone out of service is no picnic. At a Jan. 20 Budget and Finance Committee hearing called by Sup. Chris Daly to discuss health and safety impacts related to Municipal Transportation Agency layoffs, supervisors took a virtual tour of a Muni bus that was trashed on multiple levels: tagged inside and out, soiled with vomit, and strewn with garbage. Among the roughly 100 Muni workers who will lose their jobs to midyear budget cuts are 10 "car cleaners" — those unsung heroes who scrub away late into the night, tackling the residue left behind by the Sharpie-wielding, litterbug masses.

"We do send out all of our vehicles clean," MTA spokesperson Judson True told the Budget and Finance Committee members at the hearing. "We do not send out any of our vehicles with any health issues ... and we will not." Despite his assurances, members of the Board of Supervisors and some Muni staffers voiced fears that with fewer and more overworked car cleaners, the overall experience of riding public transit could suffer.

It's just one small example of on-the-ground impacts of painful budget cuts inflicted to solve a steep shortfall affecting the city's transit agency. The fiscal woes aren't unique to Muni. In coming months, San Francisco city departments across the board will have to contend with revenue shortfalls and find ways to continue providing services with diminished resources.

But with layoffs and other proposals such as raising fares, reducing service, and charging more for discount passes on the table, many are raising objections — including several members of the MTA Board of Directors, a body that is wholly appointed by Mayor Gavin Newsom. In a rare show of defiance at a Jan. 19 MTA Board meeting, several directors even resuscitated the idea of extending parking-meter hours and raising meter fees to generate new transit revenue, an idea Newsom previously rejected.

$49 MILLION IN THE RED

Muni has lost $180 million in state funding over the last three years due to "the nightmare in Sacramento," as True put it, and no one seems to believe the fiscal crisis can be resolved without some degree of pain.

At the Jan. 19 MTA Board meeting, transit agency Chief Financial Officer Sonali Bose outlined the dismal financial picture, explaining that Muni has been hit hard by declining parking and taxi fees and impacts to the city's general fund, leaving it about $49 million in the hole for the current budget cycle. After the layoffs, Muni will still face a $17 million problem. To solve it, suggestions include jacking up the historic F Line trolley fare from $3 to $5, charging $30 for discount monthly passes for seniors and passengers with disabilities, and reducing service.

Even against the gloomy fiscal backdrop, the prospect of eliminating jobs to make up for the losses drew serious concerns from MTA directors. "Once somebody's gone, they're gone," Director Shirley Breyer Black noted. "I think moving forward with cuts in these classifications will send us into deeper fiscal crisis."

All the affected workers — most of them frontline employees — are slated to lose their jobs by May 1, and around one-third of them were dismissed Jan. 22.

Muni Executive Director and CEO Nathaniel Ford emphasized that the decision to cut jobs was not made lightly. But at a Budget and Finance Committee meeting the following day, progressive members of the Board of Supervisors expressed alarm after hearing union members sound off about how the cuts disproportionately affect lower-paid classifications. The majority of layoffs target members of Service Employees International Union Local 1021, San Francisco's largest labor union, which represents frontline workers across city departments.