The nitty-gritty of Santa Rosa's budget deliberations doesn't get underway until Wednesday at 9 a.m. But in some ways the most important budget decision has already been made.

On Tuesday night, before the budget hearing even began, the council, after a spirited debate, added another $1.4 million to the police department's budget.

The increase will be the biggest boost enjoyed by any city general fund department next year, one that brings the department up to $48.1 million.

Why the bump for police when crime remains near historic lows?

Because the council, on a 5-2 vote, felt the city's budget picture has brightened enough to justify returning the department to the "baseline" level called for in Measure O.

The 2004 quarter-cent public safety sales tax contains a provision requiring that, except under times of financial distress, the budgets of the police fire and gang prevention programs should increase at the rate of the consumer price index.

Because the city's general fund revenues are rising at a faster rate, 4.3 percent, than CPI, which is 2.8 percent, city staff and the council majority reasoned that the time had come to return the police department to the level set by voters.

"If we can fund at baseline, which is what the voters specifically wanted, why wouldn't we?" Mayor Scott Bartley asked.

Two council members offered several reasons. Councilman Gary Wysocky wanted to wait and make the decision in the context of the rest of the budget discussion.

"To me, it's premature," Wysocky said.

And Councilwoman Julie Combs questioned the premise that other departments aren't being cut, citing numerous needs remaining unmet in the budget.

"I find it disingenuous to say we are not cutting when it appears to me we are certainly making our roads worse and that's a cut, and if our parks aren't maintained, they get worse, and that's a cut," Combs said.

Bartley countered with an anecdote about an elderly woman in his neighborhood who felt threatened recently by a man in her garage having mental health issues. He noted that "eight to 10" police cars responded and residents generally are satisfied with and supportive of the police service they receive.

But Combs said her objection had nothing to do with the police department's performance. Her issue, she said, was with the structure of the ever-increasing baseline requirement of Measure O and the council's unwillingness to address it.

She said she was concerned about this "exponential growth and its impact on our general fund."

Agreeing with Wysocky, she also asked why the council would "blindly" fund the department before it even sees what the department plans to spend it on. Assistant City Manager Jennifer Phillips reminded Combs that the council has already seen details of the proposed budget in previous study sessions.

Councilwoman Robin Swinth urged Combs to consider all the additional positive things that city going to be able to do next year in addition to the bump to police services. These include work to annex Roseland, turn on streetlights, and remove graffiti and add parks maintenance workers.

"I think it's important to remember all we are accomplishing as we go forward," Swinth said.

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