Santa Rosa keeps budget ax away from police and fire

The Santa Rosa City Council moved to protect public safety departments from the budget ax Thursday, advising the city manager not to move forward with a $700,000 cut to the Police Department and to find the savings from city departments other than the Fire Department.

The guidance sent a strong message to City Manager Kathy Millison that the council, led by former police lieutenant Mayor Ernesto Olivares, believes voters see public safety as a top priority they twice voted to preserve.

"We have an obligation to try as much as we can to maintain and to enhance those services that I believe they felt they voted for when they voted for Measure O and Measure P," Councilman John Sawyer said.

In 2004, voters passed Measure O, a 20-year sales tax to support public safety and gang prevention services. Last fall, they passed Measure P, an eight-year sales tax to support an array of city services, including public safety, parks and roads.

But Councilman Gary Wysocky questioned the shift, saying Measure O was passed during different economic times and voters have other priorities, too.

"I don't see how this is sustainable," Wysocky said. "It's a continued cannibalization of other departments, especially parks and recreation."

Millison originally proposed a 2011-12 budget that increased the city's general fund — the pot of money over which the council has the most control — from $109 million to $116 million.

Despite the increase, made possible largely by the $6 million expected to be raised by Measure P, her budget called for the elimination of 22 general-fund positions, including 4.5 layoffs. Rising retirement, health care and energy costs all made cuts necessary despite the 6 percent budget increase, she said.

Eight of those positions — five officers and three evidence technicians — were from the Police Department. The budget also called for the closure of Fire Station 10 in the city's southwest area, and the elimination of nine fire positions.

But Millison's proposal immediately came under fire from Olivares and Sawyer, both of whom said they were uncomfortable allowing police service levels to drop below the baseline established in 2004 by Measure O. The measure required six members of the council to sign off on any budget that let the public safety and gang prevention budgets fall below 2004 levels, adjusted for inflation.

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