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Santa Rosa City Council members Tuesday considered a grim budget forecast that could lead to $7.1 million in budget cuts next year and the elimination of almost 50 mostly vacant positions — moves that City Manager Sean McGlynn said would “slow down” all aspects of city government.

The report came nearly a year after the city was struck by historic wildfires that claimed more than 3,000 homes in Santa Rosa alone, forcing the city to tap deeply into its reserve funds to the tune of $9.4 million to cover the emergency response.

The city’s current budget projects a year-end deficit of $14.9 million in general revenue by next summer, a gap that if allowed to grow could reach $27.4 million within a decade, according to a staff report.

“Over time, this problem is likely to get worse, not better,” Chuck McBride, the city’s chief financial officer, told council members. The report he presented called for immediate action.

It recommended cutting 50 full-time positions, most of them vacant, and reduced spending on some city programs to trim a total of $7.1 million from the current budget.

McGlynn stressed that the cuts could be deeper if city voters in November do not approve a proposed quarter-cent sales tax increase, Measure O. The six-year sales tax hike is expected to generate $9 million annually to shore up the budget, according to the city.

The proposed cuts, which the council discussed but did not act on, would impact a range of city services and programs. Six vacant full-time slots for firefighters are among those proposed for deletion.

Fire Chief Tony Gossner said savings from the current vacancies are used to cover costs including overtime. He predicted that while current services wouldn’t be immediately affected, eliminating the six firefighting positions could make it more difficult to replace retiring firefighters and staff new fire stations in the long term.

“The citizens should not see anything different,” Gossner said. “It’s going to be harder on my personnel. They’re already working a tremendous amount, and it’s not getting any slower.”

McBride’s report characterized the reductions as “the first attempt” to close the budget gap and pointed to potential future cuts. The council is set to revisit the proposed cuts in January.

Councilwoman Julie Combs said the budget process would be more difficult if voters do not approve Measure O.

“I dread having that conversation where we must make reductions that are twice this set of reductions, if not more,” she said.

1 arrested after protest

The budget study session ended after a dozen people silently lined the back of the council chamber to draw attention to the plight of homeless people in the city, including some who were evicted from a makeshift encampment of vehicles at the Northpoint Corporate Center last month.

Several demonstrators held signs with messages that read “Beds not bulldozers” and “Stop abusing people.” An announcement proclaiming “Code Enforcement Awareness Week” elicited boos and hisses from some in the group.

Many spoke during public comment, criticizing the city’s recent enforcement actions at homeless camps. One man who identified himself only as Merlin berated the council individually.

“F-- you,” he said repeatedly, singling out most of the council members.

Shortly after, Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Jonathan Wolf said the council meeting was officially considered disrupted. Council members left the chamber, and attendees were given five minutes to leave as well.

When the meeting resumed, a man named Michael Titone repeatedly demanded that Mayor Chris Coursey allow him and everyone else to speak at the front of the chamber.

After several interjections, Titone was placed in handcuffs and taken from the chamber. Titone was arrested on suspicion of disrupting a public meeting, Wolf said.

The council reconvened to finish its agenda, which included several items meant to address homelessness in Santa Rosa. They unanimously passed a resolution to boost the amount of tax money dedicated to homeless and affordable housing programs.

After they adjourned, Coursey said in an interview he didn’t think the homeless advocates’ demonstrations were helping their campaign.

“I understand the cause. I don’t understand the tactics,” Coursey said, “because they’re not helpful.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

Editor’s note: This story has been revised to note that savings from current vacancies in the fire department have been used to cover overtime costs.

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