The nitty-gritty of Santa Rosa's budget deliberations doesn't get underway until Wednesday at 9 a.m. But in some ways the most important budget decision has already been made.
On Tuesday night, before the budget hearing even began, the council, after a spirited debate, added another $1.4 million to the police department's budget.
The increase will be the biggest boost enjoyed by any city general fund department next year, one that brings the department up to $48.1 million.
Why the bump for police when crime remains near historic lows?
Because the council, on a 5-2 vote, felt the city's budget picture has brightened enough to justify returning the department to the “baseline” level called for in Measure O.
The 2004 quarter-cent public safety sales tax contains a provision requiring that, except under times of financial distress, the budgets of the police fire and gang prevention programs should increase at the rate of the consumer price index.
Because the city's general fund revenues are rising at a faster rate, 4.3 percent, than CPI, which is 2.8 percent, city staff and the council majority reasoned that the time had come to return the police department to the level set by voters.
“If we can fund at baseline, which is what the voters specifically wanted, why wouldn't we?” Mayor Scott Bartley asked.
Two council members offered several reasons. Councilman Gary Wysocky wanted to wait and make the decision in the context of the rest of the budget discussion.
“To me, it's premature,” Wysocky said.
And Councilwoman Julie Combs questioned the premise that other departments aren't being cut, citing numerous needs remaining unmet in the budget.
“I find it disingenuous to say we are not cutting when it appears to me we are certainly making our roads worse and that's a cut, and if our parks aren't maintained, they get worse, and that's a cut,” Combs said.