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Santa Rosa ponders a spending plan with sharp limits after fires

Santa Rosa began building next year’s budget Tuesday, long before it will know just how deep a hole the October wildfires have burned in this year’s spending plan.

“Right now our budget is very much up in the air,” Mayor Chris Coursey said. “We all know why.”

The city has spent at least ?$5 million more than it budgeted for this year; doesn’t know when it will be reimbursed for those costs and by how much; and can’t say how property tax and sales tax revenues will ultimately be affected by a disaster that destroyed nearly 3,000 homes and 50 businesses in the city.

Against this hazy fiscal outlook, the City Council on Tuesday invited the public to share their priorities for the 2018-2019 budget. It did so ostensibly to help council members understand what the public thinks is important before they decide how to spend taxpayers’ money.

The result was a litany of suggestions from residents that ranged from the reasonable to the highly unlikely.

They included forming a public bank, investing in public art, restarting the program allowing homeless people to sleep in their cars, studying how to redevelop the burned areas of the city and encouraging people to build green.

Of those, the idea of a public bank had the largest number of supportive speakers, thanks largely to the tireless advocacy of Shelly Browning. She and her compatriots argued that founding a public bank would cut the city’s borrowing costs, eliminate fees to big Wall Street banks and give the local cannabis industry a place to park all its cash.

Browning said she’d gathered nearly 500 signatures in support of the idea.

“It’s time for Santa Rosa to get on board,” Browning said.

Artist Judy Kennedy urged the city to make an arts coordinator position full time instead of half time, arguing that it would make it easier for the city to win the grants it’s going to need to fund the type of public art projects that have been promised, such as for the Old Courthouse Square reunification project.

Homeless advocate Adrienne Lauby pushed the city to restart the Safe Parking program benefiting homeless people. It was shuttered over funding concerns and because some council members don’t consider it to be moving people toward permanent housing.

Lauby disagreed. “It’s cheap and it gets a lot of people help,” she said. She also encouraged the council to get more public toilets and back off arresting people for so-called “quality-of-life offenses,” which she argued will cost the city money and do more harm to the homeless.

Duane DeWitt suggested the city not hire anyone making more than ?$99,000 per year, and instead hire employees like parks landscapers, who make far less.

And David Petritz suggested the city spend some money on a study examining building risks in areas that burned in the Tubbs fire, noting that it had recently approved a new 49-unit project in an area of Fountaingrove scorched by fire twice in 53 years.

“It would seem that there is a very, very significant risk both in terms of safety and in terms of cost to the city for future development in that area,” Petritz said.

The City Council will hunker down for a two-day goal-setting session next week, and a study session will be scheduled for April.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin ?McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.?mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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