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Santa Rosa crowd pushes to protect services

Facing a projected $20 million budget deficit next year, Santa Rosa?s City Council got an early glimpse Tuesday how angry residents will be when their favorite programs are on the chopping block.

The council each January hosts an annual budget hearing to give residents a chance to tell their elected leaders what they?d like to see included in the next year?s budget ? a hearing that rarely attracts more than a handful of citizens.

But 150 residents, many of them alarmed at leaked reports the city was secretly considering closures of the Bennett Valley Senior Center and the Ridgway Swim Center, demanded the council look elsewhere.

Others among the 50 speakers who addressed the council argued the city should not cut funding that would impact gang intervention and homeless programs or could lead to elimination of several programs funded jointly with the Santa Rosa School District .

But City Manager Jeff Kolin said those are department recommendations only. The list of actual cuts won?t be unveiled until his office presents them to the council Feb. 24.

Tuesday?s hearing was a prelude to several council meetings in February where the council, which has already cut more than $8 million, must eliminate another $12 million to offset a projected budget deficit for the 2009-10 fiscal year that begins July 1.

For now, the city is facing a projected $20 million deficit, up from $8.5 million only six months ago. But it could be looking at a $26 million deficit as a ?worst case scenario,? Assistant City Manager Michael Frank said.

Mayor Susan Gorin said the next round of cuts ?will be even worse? than already approved cuts that include everything from closing the Steele Lane Community Center to all recreational programs to possibly shutting down fire stations on a rotating basis.

Despite the increasing gravity of the city?s financial situation, most speakers Tuesday said closing the senior center and swim center would be wrong-headed.

Steve Elliot said the senior center is a much-needed social gathering area for the city?s aging population. If it?s closed, he asked, what would the 2,000 seniors who go there weekly do?

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