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Santa Rosa City Council slashes $5.9 million from budget

Santa Rosa's City Council took its first step Tuesday night toward approving dozens of proposed cuts in jobs and services in an effort to trim about a third of the city's projected $16.2 million deficit for next year.

Late Tuesday, six council members agreed to formally approve a package of $5.9million in cuts on the consent agenda at the council's March 30 meeting.

Councilwoman Veronica Jacobi abstained from the vote in protest of several of the 128 proposed cuts. About 20 of those cuts, totaling about $1 million, were carved out of the larger package Tuesday for further review.

As it now stands, the $5.9 million package includes funding reductions for an array of programs, including cutting $195,000 to fund the Santa Rosa School District's crossing-guard program, a $193,000 contract for bomb services from the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office and $247,000 set aside to water and maintain dozens of parks.

The proposed cuts include the elimination of at least 37 jobs from the city's 1,300-member work force, affecting nearly all departments.

Representatives of each department testified before the council about how services would be affected by the cuts. They said the city would be forced to close fire stations for longer periods, reshuffle police officers from special assignments to patrol, curtail finance and mapping programs and make deep cuts to park maintenance.

"You are going to see neighborhood parks where watering is going to be very limited, and in some cases, brown lawns," said Marc Richardson, director of the Recreation, Parks and Community Services Department. "The community will feel the impacts."

The cutbacks follow the council's efforts last year to offset a $26 million deficit by eliminating more than 100 jobs and making widespread reductions to programs and city services.

The measures under consideration Tuesday night were first presented to the council in January and had changed little since then. They were an alternative to dealing with the entire $16.2 million deficit at once.

Depending on the outcome of future budget discussions, the council now appears to be left with making an additional $4.4 million in cuts - on top of the $5.9 million given informal approval Tuesday - to balance next year's general-fund budget by July 1.

The general fund is the portion of the overall city budget that finances the police, fire, public works, planning and park and recreation departments.

The balance of the deficit, $5.9 million, would be absorbed through the city's reserve fund, which by city policy must be no less than 15 percent of the total general fund.

The reserve fund should be at an estimated $17 million by July 1, but deficit spending and lower-than-expected revenues likely mean it will dwindle to $10 million, finance director David Heath said. That means the reserve would be drawn down below the 15 percent requirement, to about 10 percent, for the second straight year.

The city will likely see its bond rating downgraded because of the situation, Heath said.

"I want to make it perfectly clear to everybody here that we have angst over all these cuts," Mayor Susan Gorin said during the council's discussion Tuesday night.

In earlier business, the council put off until April 6 a decision about whether to extend a declaration of a fiscal emergency first made in February 2009.

That extension would allow the city to continue using sales tax revenue raised by the 2004 voter-approved Measure O to cover police and fire expenses that normally would be supported by the general fund.

The continued use of Measure O funds to support general fund expenditures concerned several council members and members of the public Tuesday night. The decision was postponed to prepare reports on how police, fire and gang prevention funding would be affected if Measure O funds were used again to support general fund expenditures.

So far this year, Measure O has allowed the Police Department to retain 19 police officers at a cost of about $2.9 million and help the Fire Department retain three firefighters and avoid more prolonged temporary station closures at a cost of about $500,000.

"Use of Measure O during this time has kept police officers on the streets and firefighters in the firehouses," said Ed Sheffield, chairman of the Measure O oversight committee. "(But) using Measure O as a Band-Aid during this fiscal crisis should only go so far. The city is going to have to come up with other ways to balance the budget."

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