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San Francisco: happy to spend a little extra to host the Democratic convention

San Francisco is nearly $2 million over budget on its original optimistic bid to serve as host city for the Democratic National Convention. But excitement about having the convention here seems to overshadow the concern about cost overruns.

This spring when the $5.5 million the city had allotted for convention preparations turned out to be $1.8 million short, city officials - who unanimously supported eager bidding for the convention - were hard pressed to point fingers when newspaper editorials asked ''who goofed?'' Ultimately, no one seemed to catch the blame, and the city came up with additional general-fund money and $700,000 from private donors to pay the difference.

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A $2 million overrun is hardly a bauble that city leaders can shrug off, but looking down the line - to prime-time coverage of conventioneers enjoying themselves in the city of cable cars, hills, and romantic fog, and the money to be spent here by the convention entourage of 30,000 - the return on the investment looks pretty good.

The situation tells much about the atmosphere of San Francisco. It's a city so fiscally fit that the convention is not a burden. And it leaves the city free and flush with the excitement of making history - the certain history with its own convention, and the uncertain heady hope of making history with its own mayor as a possible vice-presidential candidate.

The convention has everyone standing at attention. Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who landed the convention here with the help of monied Bay Area Democrats, has probably never seen as much support from the normally, and colorfully, divided San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Largely a liberal group, it could not say ''no'' to the party or the anticipated revenue and benefits. (The cable cars, for instance, are back on track after renovation - but their return, ahead of schedule, was considered nearly impossible and was achieved only because convention planners put the city's feet to the flame.)

''My own view is that a big to-do has been made about (the cost overrun). . . . The money spent here (during the convention) will more than make up for the money we're spending now,'' says Louise Renne, a member of the Board of Supervisors. Studies suggest that between $30 million and $50 million will be spent here during the convention and that $6.7 million in construction contracts at the Moscone Convention Center, where the convention will be held, will generate many jobs for San Franciscans. Supervisor Renne, however, adds that this does not excuse the original convention bids, which should have been more realistic and may serve as an example for future convention cities.

But San Francisco is in a fiscal position to foot convention costs with less political backlash than other cities. Certainly it is struggling with urban problems typically American - shortages of parking and housing and contention between growth vs. no-growth factions. But the city is atypical in that it has a budget surplus of more than $130 million (more than any other municipal surplus in the United States).

In fact, the city won the convention because it offered to put up so much more money than any other city, despite the fact that the Moscone Convention Center was the least attractive facility offered, explains Dick Murphy, a planner for Democratic conventions since 1956.

Mr. Murphy credits Mayor Feinstein and local convention backers with slick maneuvering and iron-handed control of the convention situation. He calls the mayor and the convention host committee chairwoman, Nancy Pelosi, ''fireballs,'' whose determination to win the bid was carried through to convention planning with a host-party relationship that is ''the best we've ever had.''

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''There's always a cost overrun,'' says Murphy, who is handling security for this year's convention. ''Cities are always strong to get the convention, and the bid is always full of promises.''

Those unexpected expenses came this year because of the need for a massive overhaul of Moscone Center, an exhibition hall that was not equipped with seating and has a series of low-slung view-blocking arches. Construction costs were originally set at $3 million and were based on the cost of outfitting Madison Square Garden for the 1976 and 1980 Democratic conventions. But the Garden is equipped for conventions, whereas Moscone needed extensive remodeling. Further, because Moscone is an exhibition hall, rather than an arena, the lighting and sound systems were inadequate. It was thought the television networks might assume the bulk of that cost, but it didn't happen, and that expense became a part of the overrun.

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