Article President’s Message José Cisneros

Getting a Handle on Financial Issues

As I begin my term as the League president, please allow me to introduce myself. I am the elected treasurer of the City and County of San Francisco. As treasurer, I serve as the city’s banker and chief investment officer, and I manage tax and revenue collection for San Francisco.

Thus I bring a somewhat different perspective to the position of League president than my predecessors. Although I hold elected office, I am not a policy-maker. My primary focus is finding ways to help my city build a strong fiscal environment.

Most California cities are suffering from the combined impacts of the Great Recession and funding cuts at the state and federal levels. Many cities are experiencing very painful financial difficulties. Some have cut programs and services to the bare minimum in an effort to simply stay afloat financially. As elected city officials, grappling with budget challenges is an ongoing task for many of us.

Cities are using a number of innovative approaches to address their fiscal problems. In my city, we have launched several programs in recent years to help our low- and middle-income residents become financially empowered. I strongly believe such empowerment is a key element of strengthening our city’s overall financial health.

Reaching Out

We created the San Francisco Office of Financial Empowerment in 2009 to oversee a range of programs. Our work consists of giving people opportunities to learn more about money, open a checking account, take advantage of tax credits, save for a child’s college education, avoid bankruptcy, overcome setbacks and gain independence. Ultimately, these efforts create a stronger local economy.

Here is a brief overview of two of these programs.

Bank on San Francisco

A checking or savings account is a critical part of financial empowerment. With an account, people keep more of their money. They build a relationship with a financial institution — essential for saving, borrowing and long-term financial planning. When people are “banked,” they’re in a position to contribute to the overall health of the city.

Officials of the City and County of San Francisco looked into the number of households in the city living without a checking or savings account in 2005. The results showed about 50,000 “unbanked” households. That figure included approximately half of San Francisco’s adult African-Americans and Latinos.

City officials determined that San Francisco had a compelling interest in helping unbanked people open accounts as a first step toward financial empowerment and a stronger community. A coalition of financial institutions worked together to develop the Bank on San Francisco program. Its key goals were to:

  • Change policies. Create more opportunities for lower-income clients to enter the financial mainstream;
  • Modify accounts. Create products without high fees or minimum balances;
  • Raise awareness. Help unbanked people learn about the benefits of keeping their money in checking and savings accounts; and
  • Provide financial education. Help San Franciscans learn more about how to use, manage and save money.

Bank on San Francisco ultimately partnered with 14 banks and credit unions. The group set an initial goal of banking 10,000 unbanked San Franciscans in two years. Results have been strong: Unbanked San Franciscans have opened more than 10,000 checking accounts per year since 2006.

Bank on San Francisco’s success attracted national attention. To help other cities start their own programs, the National League of Cities (NLC) created “Bank on Cities” and the U.S. Department of the Treasury has begun work on a national “Bank on USA” program. More than 100 cities have launched or started planning a “Bank on” program.

To provide technical assistance to support these efforts, the San Francisco Office of Financial Empowerment partnered with the NLC and the James Irvine Foundation to create, a web portal offering tools and resources for other cities planning “Bank on” programs.

San Francisco Smart Money Network

The San Francisco Smart Money Network is a group of nonprofit service providers, philanthropic funders and local public sector representatives dedicated to providing high-quality, easy-to-access financial education services to lower-and middle-income San Franciscans.

Financial education is a critical part of financial empowerment. When people understand money, they have the tools they need to save, avoid debt and invest for future goals. Instead of drawing on the city’s resources, they can contribute to the city’s strength.

While there are many financial education services in San Francisco with a variety of organizations helping diverse populations, there was little coordination, standardization or evaluation among providers before the San Francisco Smart Money Network was created. The network coordinates all these resources. It also centralizes access to services, fosters learning communities among stakeholders and raises public awareness.

The San Francisco Office of Financial Empowerment and the Charles Schwab Foundation developed the program in partnership with a group of local stakeholders and financial education experts. Since then:

  • We’ve helped more than 60 partner organizations conduct 135 financial education workshops, reaching more than 2,100 San Franciscans each year;
  • The San Francisco Smart Money Network’s quarterly professional development series has trained more than 240 financial education practitioners and stakeholders; and
  • More than 470 San Franciscans have received individual counseling with a certified financial planner through the San Francisco Smart Money Network’s Financial Planning Day, now an annual event.

Help With Your City’s Fiscal Challenges

While these examples from my city are presented here as food for thought, many of you are looking for resources to help with your current challenges. Perhaps you are looking for better ways to involve your community in setting budget priorities for your city. Maybe you need materials that can help newly elected officials grasp the basics of municipal finance. Or perhaps you are seeking resources that can be used to help educate your residents about the budget process.

The Institute for Local Government (ILG), the nonprofit research affiliate of the League and the California State Association of Counties, offers a wealth of free resources for local officials on these topics and more. These examples illustrate some of the helpful items related to local agency finance that are available on the ILG website (

A number of basic issues are covered in Financial Management for Elected Officials: Questions to Ask, including:

  • Budget creation and monitoring;
  • Financial reporting and accounting;
  • Capital financing and debt management;
  • Cash management and investments;
  • Local agency financial policies and practices;
  • Purchasing and contracting practices; and
  • Looking ahead: long-term financial planning.

An entire section of the ILG website is dedicated to engaging the public in budgeting. This section supplements ILG’s core public engagement resources for local officials who want to expand the perspectives that inform their agencies’ decision-making on budget issues.

Finally, for those interested in helping the media and the public understand more about local finance, ILG welcomes local agencies to link to these materials.

Looking Ahead

I encourage you to take advantage of these numerous free resources, and I look forward to meeting many of you in the coming year as we work together to advance the financial health of our cities.

Additional Resources

San Francisco Office of Financial Empowerment website
San Francisco Office of Financial Empowerment Annual Report
Engaging the Public in Budgeting ­— Free Online Resources, Materials and Best Practices from the Institute for Local Government
A Local Official’s Guide to Public Engagement in Budgeting

This article appears in the October 2013 issue of Western City
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