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.