Ten years ago this summer Santa Rosa voters were victims of a bait and switch. It may not have been deliberate, but they ended up getting something with their ballots they weren't expecting.
They were asked to approve Measure O, a ballot measure that would provide a quarter-cent sales tax to bolster police and fire services and gang prevention programs. What they got instead was a budgetary headache — an obligation to siphon a greater share of the general fund to public safety each year, with less and less available for other municipal employees and other services.
How did this happen? Few voters realized it, but on page seven of Resolution 3680, which was approved by the City Council on Aug. 3, 2004 and ratified by 70 percent of the voters three months later as Measure O, it states: "During the continuation of the tax, annual funding of Police and Fire Department purposes ... may not be lower than the funding approved in the 2004-2005 budget, adjusted annually" for inflation.
This essentially mandates that, no matter how much the city budget shrinks — as it did significantly during the economic downturn four years later — funding levels for public safety cannot drop below 2004 levels, when they were near a peak. This doesn't even include those additional Measure O funds, which were meant to augment existing services. In addition, the base funding levels are required to rise with inflation. The bottom line is that the city would have to dramatically boost funds for public safety and cut from everything else to live by the letter of Measure O.
Thankfully, the City Council has had the wisdom to bypass these minimum funding levels each year. But it takes a vote of at least six out of seven council members each year to do so. And the risk increases with each year that memories will fade and so will the political resolve to keep the budget from tilting dramatically toward public safety.
Even so, the portion of the city's budget dedicated to police and fire services has risen from 43.9 percent 20 years ago to roughly 63 percent this year. According to the League of California Cities, the state average is more like 35 percent.
So why doesn't the city correct this problem once and for all? It had a chance to do so in the 2012 general election, but, for reasons that defied explanation, it chose to pursue other ballot measures.
When presented with another opportunity on Tuesday, the City Council once again decided to duck the issue — and instead voted 5-2 to ask city residents to approve more funding. The city is asking voters to approve a tax on cell phone use.
There's some justification for doing this. A tax on cell phone service would not be much different than an existing user's tax the city has on landline service. But seeking a new tax increase before fixing a problematic old one is a bad idea — and threatens to undermine public trust.
The council argued that it might be too complicated for voters to understand such a measure if they hurried to put the issue on the fall ballot. More complicated than a utility users' tax?
The council underestimates the intelligence of Santa Rosa voters. They know enough that they were told they were voting on one thing only to find out later it was something else. And the only thing worse than that is to be told they have to live with it.