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CORRECTION: June 8, 2011

Due to inaccurate information provided by the city, an article that ran on Sunday June 5, 2011, misstated the amount Santa Rosa would save if firefighters gave up deferred raises amounting to 6 percent of salary. It would be $1.2 million.


Santa Rosa voters last fall passed a quarter-percent sales tax to protect "vital city services" from being gutted.

In just over a week, they'll see if they're getting what they paid for.

The budget debate gripping City Hall for the past several weeks culminates with three days of hearings beginning June 14 that will determine how the $6.5 million in new sales taxes will be spent.

So far, the council majority has made it clear that public safety is their highest priority, moving to restore proposed cuts to the police, fire and gang-prevention budgets.

Councilman John Sawyer has said the council has an "obligation to try as much as we can to maintain and enhance" police and fire services because voters have twice expressed strong support for those services.

But other council members have questioned whether that really was what voters had in mind last fall, suggesting that Measure P was as much about potholes, parks and pools as it was about public safety.

"Measure P didn't stand for &‘pensions,'" said councilman Gary Wysocky.

These differing views are shaping up to dominate the political debate of a contentious budget season that could continue a trend in which police and fire are taking an ever-larger share of city spending. The two departments now account for almost 60 percent of the city's general fund.

Even with the infusion of extra cash, the city still faces long-term financial challenges, and voters may not get all they were promised in Measure P for some time.

Measure P is the eight-year, quarter-percent sales tax that voters passed Nov. 2. It was estimated to raise $6.2 million for general city services, but slowly improving sales tax revenue has bumped that estimate up to $6.5 million.

Fifty-seven percent of the voters endorsed the measure, pushing the city's sales tax rate to 9.5 percent. Because it is a general sales tax, which only needed 50 percent of the vote as opposed to two-thirds for a dedicated tax, the council can use the money any way it chooses.

The ballot language said it was "to help maintain essential City services including police and fire protection; violent and gang-crime prevention; pedestrian safety; property and nuisance related crime prevention; street paving and pothole repair; park safety; and recreation and youth programs ... "

The ballot argument in favor of the measure noted it would avoid various "draconian" cuts and "restore badly needed services."

The added revenue is helping soften the city's budget woes. Next year's proposed $116.7 general fund budget is $7.8 million larger than this year's, a 7 percent difference.

Police and fire budgets are kept largely flat. Gang-prevention services get a boost. And pools and senior centers will be spared closure.

"It's making a difference," said Public Works Director Rick Moshier, whose department faces losing three positions instead of as many as 20. "If I cut 20 more positions, it's hard for me to even imagine. That would be gruesome."

Yet, because of a host of other rising costs – including $2.9 million for employee pensions and $1.2 million for health care benefits — voters won't be getting everything mentioned in the Measure P language and ballot argument.

One of the "draconian cuts" the ballot language said the measure would "help prevent" was the imposition of park fees, namely the $5 daily parking fee proposed at Howarth Park. Another promise was to "restore badly needed services" in departments that had been cut deeply in previous years.

Next year's budget, however, does neither.

It calls for further cuts to most departments and doesn't prevent the Howarth Park parking fee, something Wysocky has called a "bait and switch" on voters.

City Manager Kathy Millison acknowledges that voters won't be getting all the services they were promised in Measure P next year.

"It's preserving some of them, but not all of them," Millison said.

Millison's first budget, presented in April, called for $4 million in cuts spread across the city departments to offset the $8.8 million in cost increases the city faced just from "standing still," she said.

She spread the cuts across city departments in proportion to the amount each department is contributing to the deficit.

"I offered a draft budget that kind of shared the pain," she said.

But Mayor Ernesto Olivares, a retired Santa Rosa police lieutenant, and Sawyer, a former downtown news store owner, balked at the cuts to police and fire, which they said were too deep.

Together with newly elected Councilmen Jake Ours and Scott Bartley, who received police union endorsements in last fall's campaign, they now make up the majority on the seven-member council, and often are at odds with Wysocky and Susan Gorin and Marsha vas Dupre.

They advised Millison to return with a budget that restored $1.3 million to keep Fire Station 10 open part time, added $750,000 to preserve four officer positions and add an analyst, and boosted gang-prevention services by $110,000.

That $2.2 million is expected to come from three places: $1 million from concessions from existing workers, $700,000 in additional cuts from non-public-safety departments, and elimination of the $351,000 surplus Millison's budget envisioned.

Millison would not criticize that decision. She said she had clear direction from the council in how to prioritize spending of the extra sales tax dollars.

"Public safety is a core service for the city, no question about it," she said.

But can the city continue to afford the "baseline" level of service for police and fire? It's a question Councilwoman Susan Gorin says she's been giving a lot of thought in recent weeks.

A separate quarter-cent sales tax increase, Measure O, passed with 70 percent of the vote in 2004. The money was allocated specifically for police and fire funding, setting baseline spending levels that increase from 2005 every year based on inflation. The tax lasts for 20 years.

The baseline for police in 2005 was $35.9 million; next budget year it is $41.6 million. Fire has similarly grown from $21.3 million to $24.6 million, according to figures presented to the council by city finance officials.

The Police Department, which has had its budget cut by about 9 percent since 2007, would have fallen about $2 million under its baseline under Millison's initial draft. But Olivares and Sawyer said they wanted to begin turning that around over two years.

The Fire Department has fallen about 7 percent over the same period, and would have remained over the baseline figure even with Millison's initial draft.

By comparison, the two other largest city departments, public works and recreation, parks and public services, have seen the general fund portions of their budgets reduced by 26 percent and 23 percent, respectively.

Gorin thinks that's inexcusable, and says the constituents she's hearing from are incensed. "I think the public should be questioning the motivations of the council majority in why they feel it's important right now to put more money into police and fire when all of the rest of our services are being slashed," she said.

The Measure O baseline formula set by voters in 2004 is out of whack with the economic reality the city is facing today and needs to be revised, she said.

But Bartley said strong public safety services are intertwined with the city's economic health. Two of the preserved officer positions are dedicated to schools and two to the downtown, he noted.

"Once you lose control of graffiti and that kind of stuff, it can lead to a downturn in the economy," he said.

It's also not fair to demand next year's budget accomplish everything, he said. The council is working on long-term solutions to the city's fiscal problems, such as establishing the pension task force whose work is nearly complete, he said.

"The public has given us eight years to get our house in order," Bartley said.

The proposed budget does not dip into the city's $10.3 million in reserves.

Millison said a city Santa Rosa's size should have a minimum of 10 percent in reserve for emergencies and to demonstrate fiscal health to potential lenders. The council's goal is 15 percent. Reserves under her proposed budget would be 8.8 percent of the general fund.

The biggest unknown is how much the city will be able to save through employee concessions.

Millison's revised budget calls for $1 million in concessions, and she said she's confident employees will step up. Health care, pensions and salary are on the table, she said.

The city is negotiating with most of its bargaining units. The exceptions are the police and fire employees, whose contracts are up next year. But the city is nonetheless requesting concessions from those public safety units, both of which have given some concessions in the past.

Firefighters deferred 3.5 percent and 2.5 percent raises in the past, and by contract are in line for 6 percent raises in the budget year beginning July 1, Millison said. That would cost the city $440,000. But she doesn't expect that to happen.

It's become a pattern Wysocky said he's tired of.

"This is no different from other budget years. We're waiting on public safety to tell us what concessions they'll make, if any," he said.

Millison said it's important to note that the additional revenue from the parking proposal and other cuts will help "chip away at" the city's long-term deficit. But much more work remains to make the organization more efficient and sustainable, she said.

"My hope is that they will see this budget not as a fix," she said, "but as a first step in a direction."

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.