By PAUL GULLIXSON
This is a correction, of sorts. On June 19, we wrote an editorial (“SR budget is not what voters were sold”) that read:
“Most troubling is the (Santa Rosa) council’s preoccupation with Measure O ‘baseline’ funding for public safety, as if this was a lock-box mandate from Santa Rosa voters in 2004. It wasn’t. Measure O was a quarter-cent sales tax to augment police and fire services and gang prevention programs. The measure was never intended to establish minimum funding levels for public safety.”
This rankled some at City Hall, because, as it turns out, we were wrong. While I would still argue that voters never intended to set baseline funding for police and fire, that is exactly what they did — whether they knew it or not.
Because right there on page seven, paragraph G of Resolution 3680 approved by the City Council on Aug. 3, 2004 — and ratified by 70 percent of the voters as Measure O — it states: “During the continuation of the tax, annual funding of Police and Fire Department purposes … may not be lower than the funding approved in the 2004-2005 budget, adjusted annually” for inflation.
The intent of this was to make sure that the $7 million or so raised by the quarter-cent sales tax would not be used to replace existing funds for public safety. That’s understandable.
But the way this funding guarantee was worded — which, as I recall, was never mentioned in the campaign and appears nowhere in our newspaper’s coverage — is now coming back to bite the city.
Given the historic drop in city revenues in recent years, this “baseline” promise is now threatening to allow public safety funding to eat up an even larger share of the budget for police and fire. It also has the potential of being a stumbling block to bringing retirement benefits for city employees down to more sustainable levels.
As I noted in a previous column, between 1995 and 2008, police and fire spending, as a share of Santa Rosa’s general fund, grew from 43.9 percent to 55.1 percent. It’s now more than 60 percent.
But it would have been higher had the City Council not taken advantage of the out that Measure O provided from this minimum-funding promise. It allows the City Council to approve lower funding if six of the seven council members agree to do so.
This is exactly what the City Council has done for the past three years. The question is, how long will that last?
Santa Rosa City Councilman John Sawyer acknowledges that the minimum funding level was not discussed much if at all during the campaign in 2004.
“Now we have to deal with it as a community,” he said.
But it seems the City Council is more interested in dealing with it by just allowing public safety to take more of the general fund budget.
This year, in the initial budget prepared by the city manager, the Police Department was below 2004 funding levels by $2 million. Gang prevention programs were below minimum levels by $110,000. (Funding for the Fire Department, as yet, has not dropped below 2004 levels.)
The council responded by directing the city manager to restore all of the gang prevention monies and putting $750,000 back to police. Meanwhile, City Manager Kathy Millison has gotten the message that she needs to find a way to restore the remaining $1.3 million next year.
But what guarantees does the city have that city revenues will be any better next year?
In a word, none.
Some would argue that the council should be less concerned about giving public safety more money as addressing the flaws in Measure O and other documents that handcuff the city in its efforts to deal with its financial challenges.
That is exactly what could be in the works. Later this year, the city is due to begin its charter review process. This is the time when the City Council appoints a committee to clean up the wording and/or make substantive changes to the key documents that govern Santa Rosa. All of these changes would then be put to a vote of the public — a vote that’s likely to be held in the fall of 2012.
One of those changes could include altering the wording of Measure O to take out the baseline mandate. Another could be taking out what one city official called “the elephant in the room” at City Hall — the binding arbitration clause. This is the charter amendment approved by voters in 1996 that requires that pay and benefits for Santa Rosa police and firefighters be in line with comparable communities and that any labor disputes go to binding arbitration, a cumbersome and costly process that cities, in general, are loath to utilize.
The charter review also could include changing the wording of the clause that requires the city to use CalPERS for retirement benefits.
All of this is to suggest that Santa Rosa’s push to bring expenses in line with revenues — and confront its $100 million pension shortfall — will come to a hilt in the middle of next year, when just about all of public employee contracts are set to expire and the public could be voting on what could be some substantial changes.
That’s when it will become clear whether the city is serious about finally bringing expenses in line with revenues or is hoping for something else.