<i>"If we can fund at (Measure O) baseline, which is what the votes specifically wanted, why wouldn't we?"
— Santa Rosa Mayor Scott Bartley</i>
Sounds logical enough. The only problem is that the mayor's statement is simply not true — and is the reason why the City Council needs to find the political courage to correct the mistake made in the wording of Measure O that now threatens to divide the city more than ever.
If it doesn't, Santa Rosa will pump even more money into public safety at the expense of other services — park maintenance, road repair, recreation programs, etc. — that have gotten short shrift in recent years.
This danger became clear Monday when the council, faced with a steady growth in revenues, added another $1.4 million to the Police Department budget with little regard as to whether the department needed the money or whether the funding was better spent elsewhere. They did it under the pretense that this is what voters wanted when they passed Measure O. It was not.
When Measure O was placed on the ballot in 2004, it was made clear that the quarter-cent sales tax was needed to bolster police and fire services and gang prevention programs. Given the concern about rising gang violence at the time, the measure passed with 70 percent of the vote. This newspaper was among the many community groups that supported it.
But little did anyone realize that rather than becoming a measure to augment police and fire resources it would become a mandatory funding mechanism. To protect against Measure O money being used to backfill existing funds, the measure specified that police and fire budgets could not go below 2004 levels, and it built in a guarantee that those levels would increase with inflation each year. The only bypass was a vote of six of seven council members.
But when the economy went in the tank in 2008, revenues plummeted, making it unwise and politically challenging to defend slashing all other departments while keeping public safety funding healthy and growing.
As a result, the City Council wisely overrode the Measure O mandate each year — until Monday when on a 5-2 vote it gave the Police Department budget a hefty increase.
All this occurred in the same week that the council was approving new fees for playing horseshoes at Doyle Park and canoeing at Howarth Park — and drawing down general fund reserves by $1.5 million.
If the city continues to commit to following Measure O baseline funding, the police general fund budget is projected to grow another $7 million over the next five years to $51.4 million — 40 percent above where it was just 10 years ago. The Fire Department budget is expected to grow to $35 million, which would amount to a 31 percent increase over 2009 levels.
Meanwhile, the city is projecting only modest growth in revenues for the rest of the decade while payments to the California Public Employee Retirement System continue to soar.
What will be the impact? Five years ago, the Parks and Recreation Department had 132 full-time (equivalent) employees. This year it has 85. Don't expect that to change anytime soon.
The council had a chance to go to voters last year to change the wording of Measure O, but, for reasons that defy explanation, it chose not to. If it hopes to get community support for a utility tax measure, it needs to put a revision on the ballot this fall.