By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Last fall, Santa Rosa voters passed Measure P, the quarter-percent sales tax increase aimed at raising $6 million for general city services over the next eight years.
Now, city leaders must decide how to spend that money, a debate that looks to dominate the upcoming budget process.
Do they spend it on public safety or parks? Filling potholes or preserving pensions?
City Manager Kathy Millison has proposed a $116 million general fund budget, a 6 percent increase over the current year. It includes closing a fire station, slashing police positions and implementing parking fees at Howarth Park.
But at its first public airing during a City Council study session Tuesday, council members openly worried about whether the cuts to public safety — specifically police — would violate the promise made to voters in 2004 with the passage of Measure O, the quarter-percent sales tax measure to fund police and fire services.
“What I see are two agreed upon sales tax measures voted on by the people to maintain, if not enhance, public safety, and here we are cutting it,” councilman John Sawyer said.
Mayor Ernesto Olivares, a retired police lieutenant, agreed he was uncomfortable with a budget that allowed police funding to drop below 2004 levels, something Measure O said could only be done with a vote of six members of the council.
“I for one am going to have a very hard time going below the baseline when we’ve made a strong commitment to the community,” Olivares said. To do so, he said, seemed like “meddling” with the will of the voters.
Olivares said it seemed that Millison had prepared a budget based on the assumption that the council would go below those 2004 baseline levels, adjusted for inflation. Her draft 2011-2012 budget calls for the elimination of 22 positions citywide, including layoffs of four full-time and one part-time worker.
Eight of those positions are slated for the police department, pushing its $41 million budget about $2 million below adjusted 2004 levels. Sawyer told Millison he had hoped to see some other options before cutting so deeply into public safety.
There are other options, but they are not pretty, Millison said.
“I will tell you that you’re talking about very drastic reductions in service in the other budgets,” she said.
In addition, there would need to be some significant “revenue enhancements” to make up the difference, such as an “emergency response fee,” Millison said.
That’s a reference to a plan rejected by previous councils to charge people hundreds of dollars whenever firefighters or paramedics help them, unless they pay a monthly fee, in which case the services are free.
Councilwoman Susan Gorin, who spearheaded the drive to get Measure P passed last year, said backers always made it clear the measure was not going to be an “economic salvation to the city” and that more cuts would be needed.
If the council plans to keep public safety levels above those suggested in the draft budget, Gorin urged colleagues to be clear with the public what other services would be cut to pay for them.
That sentiment was backed by Councilman Gary Wysocky, who said he didn’t think those who voted for Measure P expected it would be used to prop up public safety at the expense of other city services.
“They voted, in my humble opinion, so that we would have city services such as senior centers, swim centers, neighborhood revitalization programs,” Wysocky said. “I don’t think it was passed so we continue gutting these services that make the city a whole city, and I think we’re losing sight of that.”
Sawyer and Olivares said they just wanted to see more options. Sawyer said he’d even be willing to entertain a reorganization of city services, including outsourcing city departments, if it meant preserving public safety levels expected by voters.
“Those are the kind of options that I’m hoping come out of the city manager’s office before we get deeper into cuts into public safety and our gang prevention programs,” Sawyer said.
Millison said she will have those options more clearly outlined when the council has in-depth budget sessions on May 3 and 5.