By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Modest increases in sales tax revenue combined with belt-tightening should allow Santa Rosa to build a budget for next year that boosts funding for the police department, supports some programs put at risk by the elimination of redevelopment, and sets some money aside in reserve.
The two-day City Council budget preview that wrapped up Wednesday afternoon depicted a city budget that has stabilized following several years of dramatic revenue drops. Next year’s projected $117 million general fund budget and 1,200 employees would be almost identical to this year’s budget.
“It isn’t really exciting, and that’s actually really good news,” budget analyst Jean Gill told the council.
Improved sales tax revenue is one of the bright spots, projected to increase 4 percent over this year’s $35.4 million. The increase is due largely to a rebound in tourism. In addition, employee concessions have given the city $2.3 million in breathing room for the general fund, the account over which the City Council has the most direct control.
But within the budget there has been significant rejuggling to direct money to high-priority programs, such as adding $1.2 million to the police department budget and setting $1.5 million aside toward hitting the the city’s policy goal of having 15 percent of its revenue in reserves.
“It is a challenging budget,” City Manager Kathy Millison said. “We’ve had to redefine and reexamine what some of (our) core responsibilities are.”
She noted that departments with unchanged budgets are being forced to absorb higher costs for things such as fuel.
Council members questioned the parade of city department heads that came before them, but there were few of the acrimonious exchanges that have come to define budget debates in Santa Rosa in recent years. The two-day preview was a study session, meaning no decisions could be made. They comes during formal budget hearing June 12 and 13.
Mayor Ernesto Olivares said the budget showed the city is “living within our means” while ensuring crucial services remain intact. “We’ve stopped the bleeding and now we’re going to begin slowly recovering,” Olivares said.
Councilman Gary Wysocky said he was pleased that revenues and reserves are up, but said longer-term issues remain unaddressed. Nothing has been done to begin weaning the city off Measure P, the quarter-center sales tax that expires in six years. Nor has the city done anything to address its unfunded pension liability, he said.
“Those are two upcoming issues that we haven’t even touched,” he said.
Most city departments are proposing budgets that are unchanged or virtually unchanged, but there are exceptions.
The redevelopment agency budget plummets from $8.4 million to $5.7 million, a 32 percent drop, and about half its staff eliminated. The city’s economic development program is taking a 39 percent hit, though some council members said they were uneasy allowing such a reduction to what they consider a critical city function
“I don’t want to stop the creative process that is generating ways to help the economy,” Scott Bartley said.
Police department spending is up 1 percent to $36.6 million. The boost of $1.2 million in general fund dollars will help the department fund one new sergeant, one new lieutenant and continue funding six civilian positions. It also will offset the loss of $423,000 a year in federal stimulus funding.
Fire department spending is expected to drop by 3 percent, to $24.7 million. The $900,000 reduction reflects in part a decrease in retirement costs and health benefits because employees have increased their contributions.
The city council’s budget is slated rise 10 percent, to just over $1 million, in part because of the election of four city council seats and as many as four charter ballot measures this fall.
The city manager’s office budget is expected to go up by 7 percent, to $1.5 million. Some of the increase is related to a half-time position needed to staff the public counter and a full-time records technician to help the city clerk handle a large backlog of documents.
Councilwoman Susan Gorin expressed some skepticism of the request, and said she would reserve judgment on whether to support those increases. But Olivares said he sees the stress the office is under on a daily basis and supports the additional staffing.
“For me, the city managers office is critical office. It is the portal to the city,” Olivares said.
Most administrative budgets, including human resources, city attorney and finance remained unchanged.
The information technology budget is set to rise 8 percent to $5 million, based in part on increases in software support costs and an increase in salary and benefit costs.
The community development department budget is slated to drop 3 percent to $3.8 million, due largely to a reduction in special projects. The Recreation and Parks budget is increasing 1 percent to $13.6 million. The Transportation and Public Works Department budget is inching up 2 percent to $8.3 million despite the elimination of two positions, including one that will involve a layoff.
Major capital projects for the upcoming year include $16 million in water and sewer line replacements, $1 million for making the city’s facilities more accessible to people with disabilities, $750,000 toward design of the new fire station in the city’s southwest area, and $478,000 for repair of four city parking garages.
Other projects include $350,000 to remodel a utilities building on Stony Circle to make room for 50 employees now working in nearby rented space, $110,000 toward repairing the fountain and adding restrooms at Prince Memorial Greenway Park, $150,000 for upgrading the cameras broadcasting City Council meetings and $190,000 toward the completion of the new senior Wing at the Finley Senior Center.