LEZLIE STERLING / lsterling@sacbee.com

City Councilwoman Bonnie Pannell, center, at her headquarters during election night in November, pushed the idea of providing council members with more discretionary money from the city budget.

Sacramento council members want more money in discretionary accounts

Published: Friday, Jun. 7, 2013 - 4:31 pm
Last Modified: Monday, Jun. 10, 2013 - 7:45 am

Sacramento City Council members have thrown their support behind a budget that puts more cops on the streets, keeps fire stations from closing and opens pools.

They're also tossing in a little something extra for themselves.

The City Council wants to nearly double the amount of cash each office member gets to spend on pet projects in the fiscal year beginning July 1. The plan was pitched by Councilwoman Bonnie Pannell, who told her colleagues last week that she was upset with a 2011 decision to decrease how much was allocated to council member's discretionary accounts.

"We need more money," Pannell said.

The preliminary decision to beef up the funds - expected to be finalized Tuesday night when the budget is adopted - comes after a majority of council members pushed for a recent hike in the city sales tax to fund police protection, fire staffing and parks maintenance. The city is also attempting to fill an $8.9 million deficit for the coming fiscal year.

The extra discretionary money - $43,500 for each council member and Mayor Kevin Johnson - would come from rents that cellular phone companies pay to put towers on city property. For the past two years, that money has gone to the city's general fund, which pays for most essential city services.

Council members already receive $55,000 in discretionary spending each year, meaning their district accounts would be boosted to $98,500 this year. That's in addition to money each elected official gets for staffers.

By taking the cellphone tower money for itself, the council is eliminating an estimated $391,500 that officials had proposed placing in the city's "rainy day fund." That reserve stands at $24.4 million, enough to cover the city's payroll for three weeks.

While some other governments in the region dedicate money to accounts controlled by elected officials, Sacramento's allocation is by far the largest. With the added cash this year, $886,500 in public money will be placed in accounts controlled by elected city officials in the upcoming fiscal year.

Sacramento County, with a general fund budget five times greater than the city's, sets aside a total of $100,000 for its five supervisors to split.

In Roseville, the five-member City Council gets a total of $15,000, but must vote on how to spend it. Each of the five supervisors in Placer County gets $20,000, although two of them - Jack Duran and Jennifer Montgomery - opt to have the money go to the health and human services budgets.

And in Elk Grove, politicians get $8,300 each; most use the money to hire part-time assistants.

Local watchdog group Eye on Sacramento described the Sacramento City Council accounts as "slush funds" and urged the council to reverse its decision to increase the funding. The group said the new money being shifted to discretionary accounts could be used to fund four positions in the Police Department or Fire Department, or eight parks maintenance workers.

"Far too often (discretionary) spending is used to curry political favor with influential community groups and to advance the personal political ambitions of politicians - at the expense of city taxpayers and open government," the group said in a written statement.

Discretionary spending by council members has been a frequent subject of Public Records Act requests by media outlets and watchdog groups. No illegal activity has been discovered in those records.

In past years, council members have used money from the accounts to extend hours at neighborhood swimming pools, pay for tickets to charity events and to put on concerts and parties. Former Councilman Robbie Waters banked money from his account for years and donated $150,000 to a new library in the Pocket bearing his name.

Pannell has been the most vocal advocate of the arrangement. In the past, she used money to keep pools open in depressed areas of south Sacramento and to help run the Meadowview Jazz Festival.

Pannell's original proposal was to increase the accounts by $50,000 for each office. That plan would have required the city to dip into its budget reserves and was quickly pushed aside.

The councilwoman acknowledged she was "very hostile having to give this money up" in 2011, when the council voted to shift cellphone tower money away from council members' discretionary spending and into the general fund.

"I used this money to support a lot of programs in my district, so to give it up, I was upset," she said.

Other council members voiced support for Pannell's idea. The lone skeptical voice was Councilman Jay Schenirer, who told his colleagues, "There's no free money here."

Call The Bee's Ryan Lillis, (916) 321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at sacbee.com/citybeat. Follow him on Twitter @ryan_lillis.

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