Funding formula for Santa Rosa police, fire won't be on fall ballot

Santa Rosa voters will get to answer several questions this fall about how they want their city run, but whether to adjust the funding levels for police, fire and gang-prevention services won't be one of them.

The Santa Rosa City Council has opted not to put a ballot measure before voters in November that could have taken some of the pressure off city budgets straining to keep up with the ever-increasing funding requirements of Measure O.

That quarter-percentage- point sales tax measure was passed by voters in 2004 to beef up the police, fire and gang-prevention programs. But everything changed when the recession hit and the city was forced to slash its budget, including public-safety programs.

Because of the cuts, the police department budget remains $1.7 million below the baseline set by Measure O. To pass budgets below the baseline, six members of the City Council need to agree.

Since that baseline increases by the consumer price index every year and the recovery in tax revenues has been and is expected to continue to be modest, city officials predict the council may need six votes to pass budgets for the remaining 12 years of the 20-year tax measure.

"It's not out of the realm of possibility that this could be something that the council could wrestle with each and every year for the remainder of the life of this ballot measure," City Manager Kathy Millison said.

Councilman Gary Wysocky urged city officials to explore ways that voters could amend Measure O.

They came up with two ideas. One was to have Measure O track something other than the consumer price index. But that won't help much since other indexes predict similar increases over time, said Alan Alton, an analyst in the city's finance department.

The other idea is to change the baseline year from 2004/2005 to 2009/2010, when the city declared a fiscal emergency. While that would solve the problem for the police budget, it would create another one for the fire department, Alton said.

Putting both options on the ballot or something more sweeping runs the risk of defying the intent of the voters who passed Measure O overwhelmingly in 2004, Millison said. Such a "do-over" would require a two-thirds majority to pass and a significant public education campaign, she said.

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