Op Ed                                       Return to "News Stories about LHH and SFGH" Index
Westside Observer
October 2008

A Bond Dressed in Emperor’s Clothes
by George Wooding

As November’s election rapidly approaches, San Francisco officials grow increasingly desperate to pass Proposition A to rebuild San Francisco General Hospital (SFGH). The City must convince two-thirds of voters for passage, but support is vanishing by the minute, like the Emperor’s new clothes. What happened?

Virtually every supporter and opponent of the project agrees the City needs a seismically-retrofitted hospital. The City dawdled 14 years planning the project. Utilizing vast special-interest money, the City hired high-powered lobbyists and PR experts to promote Prop. A. TV commercials air daily; brochures and flyers flood mailboxes. SFGH’s dedicated doctors, nurses, and administrators appear in hospital uniforms at every neighborhood groups’ endorsement meetings.

Despite the San Francisco Chronicle’s news black-out on opposing arguments to Proposition A, it brazenly contacted Proposition A opponents, asking them to purchase political ads costing between $2,200 and $32,000.

Whitehurst Campaigns, a local PR firm, submitted 37 of the 39 paid ballot arguments supporting Proposition A. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Dianne Feinstein, along with local medical workers and SFGH patients, were among those signing arguments. All but one of the 39 arguments were funded by the Committee to Rebuild General Hospital, which is primarily funded by Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The 39 paid ballot arguments cost just under $20,000. SEIU also plans deploying union members to pass out flyers door-to-door. Are voters being asked to save union jobs, or patients?

November’s SFGH bond measure is the most expensive in City history. San Franciscans don’t mind paying for a seismically-upgraded hospital, but we’re tired of paying for poorly-planned general obligation bond projects, after the City has sponsored one overpriced bond disaster after another. San Francisco politicians continually promise one thing to voters, then deliver completely different projects at costs higher than promised.

Laguna Honda Hospital’s (LHH) initial $401 million budget for a 1,200-bed facility has soared to $641 million for a 780-bed facility, and may climb higher. It’s painful imagining what the City will build with SFGH’s $1.7 billion budget. Sadly, before the election voters will neither know what the City will actually build nor how much it will finally cost. Current floor plans for SFGH’s project are one design change away from becoming an Emperor’s expensive Mirage.

Just like LHH’s rebuild, the same politicians promoting SFGH’s bond today will be quietly distancing themselves from SFGH snafu’s tomorrow. The June 2008 Civil Grand Jury report warns voters the City has continuously underestimated costs of general obligation bond projects by 35% to 67%. Costs for SFGH’s construction have already jumped $265.4 million - from $622 million in 2006 to $887.4 million now - a 30% increase.

The Jury’s report concludes the Mayor’s Office, the Board of Supervisors, and the Controller’s office have been unaccountable, demonstrating insufficient financial oversight over City bond measures. City politicians have chosen to ignore the Grand Jury’s report, and haven’t implemented any of the financial controls recommended before introducing SFGH’s bond measure. Unfortunately, voters will be left holding the bag, having to pay for each and every design mistake.

Privately, officials are questioning why the ninety-foot high, glass walled, oval hospital is being wedged forty feet or less between two 93-year-old, eighty-five-foot high, non-seismically retrofitted red brick buildings. It’s being placed in the fall zone of both brick buildings, and may be damaged and possibly inoperable following a catastrophic earthquake.

SFGH must comply with SB 1953, which mandates hospitals must be able to withstand an earthquake and also remain operational. One state official admitted his surprise San Francisco chose re-building an earthquake-compliant hospital in such a risky location. A retired City safety employee knowledgeable about SFGH’s structural issues is concerned an earthquake stronger, and lasting longer, than Loma Prieta’s 1989 quake that strikes closer [to San Francisco] will topple both brick buildings. The City admits both red brick buildings need seismic retrofitting, but doesn’t plan doing so until after 2015.

SFGH is backpedaling on its shifting $75 million estimate for furniture, fixtures, and equipment (FFE). Previous FFE estimates ranged from $150 million to $234 million. SFGH now claims previous estimates were based on square footage, claiming the suddenly-reduced $75 million estimate is based on actual equipment costs. Rather than purchasing the FFE SFGH may lease the FFE, ignoring that leasing adds yet-unfunded annual FFE financing in addition to the $887.4 million bond. In contrast, the LHH project chose purchasing, rather than leasing, FFE to lessen project expenses.

Proposition A proponents are employing scare tactic propaganda, frightening voters that if the bond fails San Francisco will lose its [General] Hospital. However, state law SB 306 grants cities extensions until 2020, and beyond, to complete hospital rebuilds. Proponents also claim each year lost re-building SFGH escalates costs $40 million annually. If true, the City’s 14-year delay has already cost $560 million due to political foot-dragging. Many communities, including San Mateo, successfully completed seismically upgrading hospitals by 2002.

Mayor Newsom is reportedly worried Proposition A will be rejected by an unlikely alliance of informed taxpayers, renters, and the City’s big landlords. Landlords are using Proposition A as a bargaining chip to achieve a 50% pass-through of sewage charges to tenants. The Coalition for Better Housing filed election papers forming a “No on Proposition A” committee to oppose what they call “the largest bond in San Francisco history” and to support a less-expensive hospital plan. Political consultant Jack Davis has jumped in, questioning the soundness of this bond. Newsom is worried a well-financed campaign against Proposition A - especially one highlighting long-term costs to voters - will doom bond passage.

Whatever their motivation, the City’s big landlords are actually right about Proposition A. The only way it will pass is if voters don’t understand underlying hospital rebuild issues. Newsom is also correct: The more voters know about this bond, the less they will support it.

The City must correct project flaws before construction, build the less expensive hospital, retrofit both red brick buildings beforehand, and adopt the Grand Jury’s accountability recommendations.

This bond wears the Emperor’s imaginary clothes. Vote No on Proposition A.

George Wooding
Vice President, West of Twin Peaks Central Council

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