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Santa Rosa approved a $357 million budget Wednesday that begins restoring some community services scaled back during the recession but which critics say continues funding public safety at the expense of other pressing city needs like roads, parks and unfunded pension liabilities.

On a 5-2 vote, the City Council passed a 2014-2015 budget that is 5 percent larger than the current year thanks largely to higher revenues driven by an improving economy. But the council was sharply divided over whether the spending plan was balanced.

City staff and the council majority stressed that every department was seeing a spending increase next year as part of an effort to restore needed services, such as turning streetlights back on, removing graffiti and planning for the annexation of Roseland.

"We're starting to rebuild what we lost," Mayor Scott Bartley said. "We're not going to do it overnight."

Dissenting council members meanwhile argued that the budget did little to address long-term financial issues, ignored large maintenance backlogs and unnecessarily boosted funding for police services.

"This is not a balanced budget and this does not restore services," Councilman Gary Wysocky said.

Councilwoman Julie Combs praised city staff for working hard to fund some key council goals, including adding money to parks for irrigation and two new groundskeepers. But she said a fundamental difference exists on the council over what the community's priorities should be.

"I really see a lot of progress in our city, but we have this nagging difference about how we approach what we value in our budget," Combs said. "It looks like the halves keep having and the have-nots don't recover."

Combs urged her colleagues to find an additional $300,000 to fund a full parks maintenance crew. But only three council members expressed support and it never came to a vote.

Vice Mayor Robin Swinth said she hopes future councils will find ways to direct more money to parks, but she couldn't back dipping further into reserves this year. The budget draws down reserves by $1.5 million, to 15.6 percent of the general fund.

"We are in a place of things incrementally getting better, so we are incrementally bringing services back online in the city," Swinth said. "I think this budget does a good job of making improvements where we can."

Bartley, Swinth, Jake Ours and Ernesto Olivares supported the budget, Wysocky and Combs voted against it.

The vote followed a public hearing that began Tuesday evening with City Manager Kathy Millison stressing how hard city staff worked to ensure the budget reflected the priorities of the council and the restoration of "high-impact" services to residents.

"The good news this year is that we are making more investments in our core services," Millison said.

The city is expected to spend 4.3 percent more in its general fund than last year, or $128.9 million. The city-wide budget creates 23 new positions across several departments, including police officers, planners and code enforcement officers. Millison highlighted projects to improve pedestrian safety, make the city more accessible for people with disabilities and upgrade the aging wastewater treatment plant.

"We have a lot of significant projects planned for the city," she said.

Projects underway in the city's southwest include planning for the annexation of Roseland, the impending construction of Bayer Neighborhood Park and Gardens, improvements to Stony Point Road and restoration of lower Colgan Creek, she noted.

She cautioned, however, that current and future councils will have to work hard to prioritize service restorations because the slow recovery means the city will continue to struggle with scare resources.

"We still have some work ahead, but we've made some really good progress," said Millison, who is retiring in September.

How well a council that censured one of its members just two weeks ago works together going forward remains to be seen.

After a personnel investigation he decried as a "politically motivated witch hunt," Wysocky was censured last week for behavior his colleagues called abusive toward city staff. Combs, meanwhile, has been harshly critical of City Attorney Caroline Fowler's legal advice and Bartley's leadership, further straining council relations.

The budget hearing itself was the culmination of several public study sessions during which council members and the public shared priorities. Most council members agreed the budget process was more detailed and easily understood than in previous years.

During earlier sessions, the council agreed to spend:

*$600,000 on replacing or energizing streetlights

*$125,000 for upgrades to the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens Association

*$100,000 to support the transfer of land from the state for the Southeast Greenway

*$130,000 on two additional parks groundskeepers

*$103,000 to promote community events including the Luther Burbank Rose Parade, West End Farmers Market and Shakespeare at the Cannery

*$90,000 to get the city's homeless shelter permitted for a 68 temporary winter beds.

On Tuesday, the council also agreed to spend an additional $1.4 million — $1.2 million now and another $200,000 in the fall — to return the police department to funding levels called for by Measure O, the quarter-cent public safety sales tax. To ensure the tax enhances public safety services, it requires, absent council override, that the police, fire and gang prevention department base budgets increase annually by the consumer price index.

The $1.4 million boost for police means that, when combined with other revenue increases, the department will enjoy the single largest spending bump next year. The $2.6 million increase brings the budget to $48.1 million, a 5.6 percent boost over current spending levels. Most departments had only "status quo" budgets that included far more modest increases.

The department has lots of plans for the money, including a new police officer, a new community service officer, an administrative assistant and two information technology staff moved over the from the city IT department. It also plans to roll out body-worn cameras for officers, improvements to interview rooms, and a new video simulator to enhance training for officers in the de-escalation of force.

Assistant City Manager Jennifer Phillips explained that absent cuts to other departments, the city had a legal obligation to fund the police department to the "baseline" level as calculated under Measure O. The council majority agreed that doing so reflected the will of the voters. But Wysocky and Combs stressed the needs going unmet because of the boost — including a $2 million annual maintenance backlog in parks and an $8 million annual shortfall in road maintenance.

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

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