By PAUL GULLIXSON
I admit my memory is bad. I blame it on fatherhood. As Bill Cosby said, “Kids cause brain damage.”
But I can remember as far back as November. I remember the debate surrounding Measure P, the quarter-cent sales tax that passed with 57 percent of the vote. And at no point do I recall that being all about preserving public safety as the Santa Rosa City Council majority now contends.
The message seemed pretty clear at the time. Voters were asked to push the city’s sales tax rate up to 9.5 percent in order to avoid cutting police and fire positions and closing community centers, shutting down swimming pools and parks, having more brownouts at fire stations and taking other drastic steps.
Yes, it was vague. General tax increases have to be. If they’re specific about how the funds would be spent, then the measure would require a two-thirds majority to pass. Those are the rules.
Fortunately, we have a tendency to write things down here at the newspaper. So I went back and reviewed what the measure said, what we said and what other people were saying at the time. And it looks to me that the City Council majority is guilty of some revisionist thinking.
The measure began with simple language, “To help maintain essential city services, including police and fire protection, violent and gang-crime prevention, pedestrian safety; property and nuisance-related crime prevention, street paving and pothole repair; park safety; and recreation and youth programs, shall” the city adopt a sales tax increase?
Is preserving public safety part of it? Absolutely. But was this a mandate from the voters to fund public safety at the expense of everything else? No.
Nor was it the main thing advocates, including us, were talking about leading up to the election. Most of the discussion was about the draconian things that would happen if Measure P failed. In addition to closing a fire station and eliminating police positions, “Some parks will be closed and park user fees will be implemented,” read the ballot argument supporting Measure P. “On the chopping block may be the Ridgway and Finley Swim Centers, the Senior Center and our Homeless Center.”
The City Council also made clear that if the tax didn’t pass, Santa Rosa would start charging for parking at Howarth Park.
Nevertheless, the City Council majority gave the city manager the clear message last week that keeping the police and fire departments whole comes before everything else, including charging $5 to park at Howarth Park and, possibly, shutting down the senior center and the Ridgway Swim Center, things voters were promised would be avoided.
To address the city’s $3.9 million shortfall for this year, City Manager Kathy Millison had proposed a number of cuts, including a reduction of $700,00 from police. But based on the council’s direction, Millison put the money, plus another $50,000, back into the budget. She also says she may have found a way to keep the senior center and the Ridgway Swim Center open. But the funding for that is something of a mystery.
“We have an obligation to try as much as we can to maintain and to enhance those services that I believe (voters) felt they voted for when they voted for Measure O and Measure P,” said Councilman John Sawyer.
Here’s the problem. The City Council majority, including Mayor Ernesto Oliveras and Sawyer, appear to be lumping these two measures together in their minds. But Measure P was not Measure O. Measure O was a quarter-cent sales tax that voters approved in 2004 specifically for public safety. The breakdown was: 40 percent to police, 40 percent to fire and 20 percent to gang prevention.
Measure P was a general sales tax. It seems to me the directive was to spread the funds — an extra $6 million a year — out over many “essential services,” which would include community centers. If the council doesn’t agree, it should get creative in asking Santa Rosa residents how to spend the money. But don’t simply conclude that Measure O and Measure P were the same thing and invent a voter mandate that doesn’t exist.
Worse, the city could be shooting itself in the foot by committing to keep police and fire whole while still trying to get public safety employees to make concessions on pay and benefits, concessions that other city employees have already made.
Never mind for a moment that police and firefighters are allowed to retire at age 50 with a pension up to 90 percent of their salary (3 percent for each year of service). Never mind that they once paid 9 percent of their salaries toward their pensions but the city now pays all of it. Never mind that police officers now get paid to put on and take off their uniforms. Never mind that the city is $100 million behind in meeting its long-term pension obligations. It’s an issue of fairness and balance. Does Santa Rosa want to be more than public safety?
The share of the city’s general budget that goes to police and fire has grown steadily in recent years and now hovers near 70 percent.
Councilman Gary Wysocky is right on this one. He contends the council is “cannibalizing other departments.” “I don’t see the shared sacrifice,” he said on Thursday. “I don’t see it yet.”
I don’t either. And I’m guessing that if community centers end up being closed, parking at Howarth Park costs $5 a day and public safety employees don’t commit to reductions in benefits, voters won’t see it either and will make that clear the next time the city comes asking for more money — if not before.
Paul Gullixson is editorial director for The Press Democrat. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Call him at 521-5282.