Santa Rosa got an early start to its annual budget battles Tuesday, with some of the newest faces on the council driving a lengthy and often confusing debate about funding for next year's Police Department budget.

Ultimately, the council unanimously agreed to allow the department to fall $1.1 million to $1.6 million below a budget level set by the formula established when voters passed Measure O in 2004, the quarter-cent sales tax for enhanced public safety services and gang prevention programs.

But getting to that point was a challenge for the council, which has three new members and several veteran council members who are strongly divided on funding for public safety.

City Manager Kathy Millison was asking the council to agree to pass later this year a 2013/2014 budget for the Police Department was would be no lower than about $42.3 million, or $1.1 million below the so-called baseline established in Measure O.

The exact figures are not available yet because the baseline won't be set until it is adjusted upward, as it is every year regardless of the city's finances, by the consumer price index. That formula has created a scenario where the city is unable to meet the ever-escalating baseline levels without steep cuts to other departments.

But council members Julie Combs and Gary Wysocky balked, saying they were uncomfortable agreeing to the $1.1 million level without more information. They suggested they might prefer the department get less money. The measure needed six votes to pass.

Combs said she didn't want to agree to an increase to the Police Department without considering it in the context of the needs of other departments.

"Some of our city departments are essentially anorexic," Combs said. "They have been dieted to death."

She strongly suggested that she would prefer to see additional general fund dollars go toward the city's economic development department, which she noted is charged with one of the city's highest priorities but runs on a budget of less than $400,000.

"I'm trying to hang on to $500,000 for another project. What can I say?" Combs said.

Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm explained that he would spend the additional $1.1 million on rebuilding the community policing team, having more officers perform background checks, and hiring additional community service officers for functions such as graffiti removal.

Mayor Scott Bartley suggested it would be inappropriate for the council to push the funding level lower than the $1.1 million below baseline.

"I think we run a real risk of ignoring the will of the voters," Bartley said.

But new Councilwoman Robin Swinth forged a comprise that, after much debate, found full council support. She proposed the range of between $1.1 million and $1.6 million below baseline, with the understanding that Millison would in her upcoming budget show clearly how other council priorities are being met.

(You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or On Twitter @citybeater)