Santa Rosa budget cuts put focus on promises made to voters

Last fall, Santa Rosa voters passed Measure P, the quarter-percent sales tax increase aimed at raising $6 million for general city services over the next eight years.

Now, city leaders must decide how to spend that money, a debate that looks to dominate the upcoming budget process.

Do they spend it on public safety or parks? Filling potholes or preserving pensions?

City Manager Kathy Millison has proposed a $116 million general fund budget, a 6 percent increase over the current year. It includes closing a fire station, slashing police positions and implementing parking fees at Howarth Park.

But at its first public airing during a City Council study session Tuesday, council members openly worried about whether the cuts to public safety — specifically police — would violate the promise made to voters in 2004 with the passage of Measure O, the quarter-percent sales tax measure to fund police and fire services.

"What I see are two agreed upon sales tax measures voted on by the people to maintain, if not enhance, public safety, and here we are cutting it," councilman John Sawyer said.

Mayor Ernesto Olivares, a retired police lieutenant, agreed he was uncomfortable with a budget that allowed police funding to drop below 2004 levels, something Measure O said could only be done with a vote of six members of the council.

"I for one am going to have a very hard time going below the baseline when we've made a strong commitment to the community," Olivares said. To do so, he said, seemed like "meddling" with the will of the voters.

Olivares said it seemed that Millison had prepared a budget based on the assumption that the council would go below those 2004 baseline levels, adjusted for inflation. Her draft 2011-2012 budget calls for the elimination of 22 positions citywide, including layoffs of four full-time and one part-time worker.

Eight of those positions are slated for the police department, pushing its $41 million budget about $2 million below adjusted 2004 levels. Sawyer told Millison he had hoped to see some other options before cutting so deeply into public safety.

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