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Muni and Mayor Collide Over Deficit

 
Observers wonder whether new transit chief will bend to the will of Ed Lee

Edward D. Reiskin, the new chief of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, has begun to make progress with the nearly impossible project of winning over the city’s embittered transit riders.

A regular Muni rider, Reiskin has endeared himself with his unpretentious manner and quick wit. In his three months on the job, he has pushed forward long-dormant plans, like allowing boarding at all bus doors, that will most likely speed San Francisco’s slow and unreliable buses.

Now Reiskin is tackling the transit agency’s most pressing problem. He must fill a $79.7 million budget hole in the next two years or make service cuts that would have a big impact on Muni’s 700,000 daily riders — stark choices revealed in the preliminary budget released two weeks ago.

Some longtime Muni watchers worry that the mayor’s office, which has a history of raiding the agency for money, will stand in Reiskin’s way. There is also concern that Reiskin will bend to the will of Mayor Edwin M. Lee, who promoted Reiskin to head the public works department in 2008 and whose chief of staff suggested Reiskin for the job of Muni chief.

A battleground that exemplifies the tension between the mayor’s office and the agency is the use of “work orders,” the practice of other city departments, like the police and the city attorney, billing the transit agency for services.

Currently, the transit agency is paying $9.5 million a year to finance a fleet of police officers on motorcycles who enforce traffic laws on the city’s streets and $2.5 million for other police services. The agency is also being billed $180,000 a year to help pay for staff members in the mayor’s office who work on “city greening” projects.

“Some progress has been made on this issue, but there still needs to be more analysis about whether these deliverables actually make sense,” said David Campos, a San Francisco supervisor. “Is there really a clear nexus between the M.T.A. and the motorcycle unit?”

Two years ago, the controller’s office reprimanded the agency for not scrutinizing these payments when they reached a high of $66 million. But the transit agency, whose operating budget is $791 million, is still planning to spend $60 million on work orders this year and $66 million next year.

Reiskin’s preliminary budget suggests reducing work orders as a way to save money. But in an interview this week, he said he also saw that work orders for services like the police could be necessary.

“If I am sitting in the mayor’s budget office faced with a couple hundred million shortfall, it’s easy for me to argue that those are transportation-related public safety services,” Reiskin said.

On the other hand, he said, when you account for the fact that city residents voted to give the transit agency its own dedicated stream of financing, “you might see the transit agency paying for police services running counter to that.”

Mayor Lee has no such reservations. Christine Falvey, a spokeswoman for him, said in an e-mail last week that Lee was “not convinced that reducing M.T.A.’s work orders is the best way” to cut costs for the transit agency.

Another point of tension between the mayor’s office and the agency is a proposal to extend parking meter hours to evenings and Sundays. Reiskin said that making drivers pay during those times and metering 1,000 new spaces could bring in $12.8 million in annual revenue.

Falvey wrote that it sounded like an “old idea” and that Lee had “asked the M.T.A. director to come back with other efficiency or revenue options that won’t harm small businesses.”

Reiskin said his close relationship with the mayor would ultimately help him get more money for the transit agency. “In the past,” he said, “it’s been easier for people to take from the M.T.A. because the relationship was not that strong.”

Tom Radulovich, a BART board member who represents San Francisco, said he remained skeptical.

“Will he be allowed to make decisions that are for the long-term health of Muni?” Radulovich asked. “I think we’re all watching to see if it’s going to be different with both Eds there.”

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

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