By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Santa Rosa voters will get to answer several questions this fall about how they want their city run, but whether to adjust the funding levels for police, fire and gang-prevention services won’t be one of them.
The Santa Rosa City Council has opted not to put a ballot measure before voters in November that could have taken some of the pressure off city budgets straining to keep up with the ever-increasing funding requirements of Measure O.
That quarter-percentage- point sales tax measure was passed by voters in 2004 to beef up the police, fire and gang-prevention programs. But everything changed when the recession hit and the city was forced to slash its budget, including public-safety programs.
Because of the cuts, the police department budget remains $1.7 million below the baseline set by Measure O. To pass budgets below the baseline, six members of the City Council need to agree.
Since that baseline increases by the consumer price index every year and the recovery in tax revenues has been and is expected to continue to be modest, city officials predict the council may need six votes to pass budgets for the remaining 12 years of the 20-year tax measure.
“It’s not out of the realm of possibility that this could be something that the council could wrestle with each and every year for the remainder of the life of this ballot measure,” City Manager Kathy Millison said.
Councilman Gary Wysocky urged city officials to explore ways that voters could amend Measure O.
They came up with two ideas. One was to have Measure O track something other than the consumer price index. But that won’t help much since other indexes predict similar increases over time, said Alan Alton, an analyst in the city’s finance department.
The other idea is to change the baseline year from 2004/2005 to 2009/2010, when the city declared a fiscal emergency. While that would solve the problem for the police budget, it would create another one for the fire department, Alton said.
Putting both options on the ballot or something more sweeping runs the risk of defying the intent of the voters who passed Measure O overwhelmingly in 2004, Millison said. Such a “do-over” would require a two-thirds majority to pass and a significant public education campaign, she said.
Even an adjustment to the baseline year, which might need just majority approval, would prove a challenge given the time constraints, she said.
“We have not had the opportunity to have the kind of community involvement that I think is necessary to take this kind of an issue to voters,” she said.
The majority of council members voted against placing anything on the November ballot. Mayor Ernesto Olivares said he didn’t see a significant problem in needing to get six votes to pass budgets.
“Thankfully, the voters did give us a tool to use,” Olivares said. Councilmen John Sawyer, Jake Ours and Scott Bartley joined Olivares in voting against the idea.
Susan Gorin and Marsha Vas Dupre, however, felt the public deserved the right to vote on the issue. The public is well aware that Measure O is “putting us in a straightjacket,” she said.
“We absolutely need to rethink something that will make sense in light of our new economic reality and forecasts, and yet still ensure that we honor the wishes of the voters,” she said.
Millison, the city manager, suggested that the city continue to explore the issue with an eye toward a better long-term solution. She proposed establishing a council subcommittee to investigate the options.
The four measures that the council last voted to place before voters in November had been endorsed previously by council members.
The first regards district elections. It will ask voters whether city council members should continue to be elected citywide or if they should be elected from districts created by the council.
The second will involve modest changes in the guidelines for the binding arbitration process for police and firefighter union contracts.
The third involves changing the city rules to allow projects to be designed and built by the same company.
And the fourth measure involves various less significant city charter changes lumped together in a “clean-up” measure.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org.