San Francisco Green Team Spared the Ax — for Now

San Francisco — home of an ambitious solar incentive program, a Tesla-driving mayor who blogs against “drill baby drill,” and soon, electric vehicle infrastructure by Better Place — faces a staggering budget deficit for next year. Mayor Gavin Newsom revealed a plan for $71 million in spending cuts to this year’s budget at a Board of Supervisors Meeting late yesterday — significantly less than the $125 million anticipated by local media, but enough to put nearly 400 city employees out of work by February. An additional 313 positions (currently unfilled) will be eliminated.

Leading the way on many green initiatives when times were good, San Francisco’s response to falling revenues — a challenge shared by cities around the country as a result of the economic slowdown — could be a bellwether for cutbacks nationwide. Many of the city’s hallmark environmental programs, including the alternative fuels and renewable energy initiatives run by the Department of the Environment, remain secure in their funding because it does not come from the city’s general fund. “We’re safe this year and it’s looking good for the future,” said Mark Westlund, a spokesperson for the department, “as long as state funds are still there and people still pay their utility bills.”

For now, it looks like Newsom will also hang onto staffers working on climate change issues, but the green team may not have the same security as environment programs funded by state and federal grants, utility charges and garbage rates. The top climate aide’s six-figure salary, for example, is partially covered by the Municipal Transportation Agency, which faces cuts under Newsom’s plan. According to Brian Purchia, a spokesperson for Newsom’s office, the fact that the team draws funds from different pots affords it some protection. (The Department of Health takes the biggest hit in Newsom’s proposal in part because it draws heavily from the general fund.) The group earns more than $1.6 million — a small fraction of the $576 million deficit projected for 2009-10, but the same amount cut from the Fire Department under Newsom’s plan for 2008. It may not escape the ax next time around.

Purchia told us today that fighting climate change remains a top priority. “The Mayor is committed to his core principles,” he said, “and one of them is the environment.” Asked if city staff working on climate issues would be affected by this year’s cuts, Purchia said, “No, not yet.” But given the outlook for 2009 and 2010 (Newsom called the budget situation “a magnitude that can only be described as a crisis”), he said that could change.

The more than $160,000-a-year climate aide position created earlier this year may be a particularly juicy target. Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin called for its elimination today, and the San Francisco Chronicle has presented it as an example of eco-excess.

Here’s a look at the climate change-fighting team that was spared in this round of cuts, assembled by the Chronicle in February. As the Chron intro put it:

“At least 25 city employees work directly on initiatives related to climate-control efforts in San Francisco. Here is a sample of those jobs and what they are paid”:

  • Mayor’s Office, $160,720: Director of climate protection initiatives
  • Department of the Environment, $800,000: Eight-person Energy and Climate Program team led by a climate action coordinator — at a total cost of more than $800,000
  • San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, $146,218: Projects manager for the climate action plan
  • San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, $156,655: Assistant to the general manager for water enterprise (works on how climate change is going to impact the region’s water supply)
  • San Francisco International Airport, $190,091: Manager of environmental services
  • Municipal Transportation Agency, $116,584: Manager of emissions reductions and sustainability programs

*Salary figures include annual salaries and estimated benefits.