Political Notebook: With eye on '24 reelection, gay SF treasurer rolls out new taxes

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday March 15, 2023
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San Francisco Treasurer-Tax Collector José Cisneros. Photo: Courtesy José Cisneros
San Francisco Treasurer-Tax Collector José Cisneros. Photo: Courtesy José Cisneros

Ever since former mayor Gavin Newsom, now the state's governor, appointed him to fill a vacancy in 2004, gay San Francisco City Treasurer-Tax Collector José Cisneros has had a long-running joke with the Political Notebook that he is only of interest to cover when he stands for reelection. Serving in an elected position that doesn't often get the media's attention, Cisneros has one of the lowest public presences of any of San Francisco's LGBTQ elected leaders.

That is partly by choice, as Cisneros tends to favor staying out of the limelight when it comes to proposed taxes to be voted on by the electorate or policy fights at City Hall. As he has often said over the years, his job is not to influence but to institute the city's tax policies and inform the impacted entities, whether property owners or local businesses, about them.

Such is the case with several new taxes Cisneros' office will be responsible for collecting in the coming years. One is the city's Empty Homes Tax that goes into effect in 2024 with the taxes due to be paid in 2025. Cisneros and his staff will roll out ahead of the due date for it a public awareness campaign to inform property owners what their obligation will be under the new tax. (A group of landlords in January filed a lawsuit against Cisneros and the tax, known as Proposition M on the 2022 November ballot, as the San Francisco Standard reported.)

"While the work of our office is not in the headlines very often, we still do vitally important work," said Cisneros, the only LGBTQ person to hold one of the city's seven elected executive positions. "I am proud of the team here that works very, very hard to make sure we do it successfully."

It had been expected that Cisneros would stand for reelection this fall, but the voters once again disrupted his election schedule. Due to the passage last November of Proposition H, San Francisco is moving its off-year municipal elections to coincide with the presidential elections.

Thus, elected leaders like Cisneros and Mayor London Breed had an extra year added to their current four-year terms and will need to seek reelection to new four-year terms in 2024. Cisneros told the Bay Area Reporter this month that he will run for a sixth term.

"I will stand for election whenever the city and voters decide to schedule it. I am happy to have the job and happy to stand again for election," said Cisneros, 67, who is married to San Francisco Human Rights Commissioner Mark Kelleher.

This isn't the first time his election schedule has been disrupted. Because of another voter-approved change, which had moved his and several other citywide races to being held in odd years, Cisneros only served a two-year term before seeking a full four-year term in 2015.

So his serving in 2024 will make up for one of the two years in office he had lost last decade. This September, due to his initial appointment, Cisneros will mark his 19th year of being San Francisco's treasurer. (The position is not term limited.)

"You are keeping track better than I am," he quipped. "I love the work of our office, and the work we do is very important. We bring in the revenue that allows the city to implement all the measures that city leaders and the voters have put into effect."

He had cakewalked into his current fifth term, as no one opposed him in 2019. Cisneros also has the distinction of being the longest-serving openly gay elected official at the city level. The previous record holders, Tom Ammiano and the late Harry Britt, both served on the Board of Supervisors for 14 years.

No one has challenged Cisneros since he first ran for the position in 2005. It remains to be seen if anyone will run against him next year.

In response to the COVID pandemic, now entering its fourth year, Cisneros and his office worked with city leaders to provide assistance to local taxpayers whose incomes were impacted by the health crisis. They extended the deadline for certain taxes and worked to ensure taxpayers could pay their bills online and find the information they needed on the treasurer's website.

"We had to, No. 1, change our systems to reflect all those decisions, and number two, reach out to the taxpayers as well as we could to inform them about the new deadlines for tax relief and extensions they were getting so they could best plan for what made sense for them," recalled Cisneros. "At the same time the governor made similar payment extensions for property taxes for property owners affected by the pandemic as well. Some of those were for nearly a full year of delay."

With City Hall back open to the public, Cisneros said his office has not seen in-person traffic return to the same level as it had been pre-pandemic. He credited it to many people becoming comfortable paying their tax bills online over the last three years rather than feeling like they have to show up in person.

"My office has seen a vast and lasting change in terms of taxpayers being hugely remote now in the way they deal with us," he said. "Far fewer people actually show up in person and come into our office either to make payments or ask questions to get support or help."

It wasn't unusual prior to 2020 for there to be thousands of taxpayers showing up at his office in City Hall to pay their property taxes, noted Cisneros, ahead of the deadlines for them to do so in April and December each year. Those crowds are now a thing of the past, he said.

"We have pretty much eliminated long lines ... so come on down, there are no waits," said Cisneros. "We have seen no lines like that since the pandemic. People have learned far more convenient and easy ways for them to make their tax payments."

One change

One change Cisneros' office has put into effect is moving how the city taxes businesses from a calculation based on payroll to being based on a company's gross receipts. The switchover was staggered so companies had time to prepare and was recently adjusted via a ballot measure to ensure the same amount of tax was being collected as had been using just a payroll tax.

In the 2021-2022 fiscal year, the city brought in business taxes totaling more than $1.3 billion. Last fiscal year, which began last July 1, the amount was $828,804,969, per the city controller's office.

A downside to how the city calculates taxes owed by businesses is that it is partly based on the number of employees working in the city. With more people working remotely, there has been a drop in tax revenues for the city, resulting in municipal budget deficits projected for this year and next.

"What we don't know yet, and is something the controller's office and city economist and others are looking at and doing their best to analyze, is what the impact of remote work is going to be," said Cisneros. "Initially, it looks like it could be large, to the tune of millions of dollars coming in less to the city. But that is a best guestimate."

The data that will be coming in from this year's tax filings on the impact of remote work policies in terms of city revenues may lead to changes or additional taxes that Cisneros and his staff will need to implement. They just oversaw the first deadline at the end of February for people to pay a new commercial vacancy tax.

As for how he and his staff ensure the taxes owed are paid, Cisneros declined to go into the specifics.

"We know how to do our work and we do it very well," he said. "I am promising you that everyone who owes a tax will pay it. If they are late, they will pay a penalty."

For those needing assistance, his office contracts with outside groups to provide free financial coaching sessions in the city via its Smart Money Coaching program. Because of the program, the San Francisco LGBT Community Center has a full-time staff member who works with low-income LGBTQ people, noted Cisneros.

His office continues to be involved in the effort to launch a city-run public bank, though the decision to launch it is under the purview of the mayor and supervisors. The city's Reinvestment Working Group last month released detailed draft plans for doing so.

"I don't know what role we would exactly play," said Cisneros. "We would be open to those discussions, particularly if they create a stand-alone bank."

And this year will mark the first time the entire class of seniors in the city's public schools will be graduating with some amount of money in a college savings account. Known as Kindergarten to College, or K2C, Cisneros had helped set up the program, which opens an account for all students enrolled in kindergarten with a starter amount of $50.

Students and their families can then put whatever amount they can afford to save in the account each year. While Cisneros said he didn't know how much money this year's seniors had saved, he does know the accounts for the roughly 45,000 students who have one now total more than $11 million in savings for their higher education needs.

"It is exciting that it has been around long enough that all of the graduating seniors are graduating with some amount of funds to pay for college or whatever educational opportunities they are pursuing," said Cisneros.

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column reported on several 2024 U.S. House races in California with LGBTQ candidates.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBTQ political news by following the Political Notebook on Twitter @ http://twitter.com/politicalnotes

Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

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