Despite projections showing that its spending plan could lead to significant deficits down the line, the Sacramento City Council approved a budget Tuesday night that will add to the ranks of the Police Department, avoid the shuttering of a downtown fire rig and increase parks maintenance, library funding and youth programs.
Those increases in service are a result of new money from Measure U, a half-cent hike in the sales tax approved by city voters in November. Altogether, the council voted to spend roughly $26 million in Measure U money.
But the vote was not unanimous. Three council members Allen Warren, Jay Schenirer and Kevin McCarty voted against the budget, in part because the overall budget plan included shifting money away from the general fund budget and into discretionary accounts controlled by council members.
Mayor Kevin Johnson and council members Angelique Ashby, Steve Cohn, Steve Hansen, Darrell Fong and Bonnie Pannell supported the $376 million general fund budget.
Projections by city budget officials showed that with the robust spending plan approved by the council, the city could face a $9 million deficit in its Measure U money by 2019, the year the sales tax increase expires.
Council members tried to ease those concerns. Under a plan crafted by Fong, 15 police officers added through this year's budget would be shifted from Measure U to the general fund in the 2015-16 fiscal year, assuming the union that represents those officers agrees to pay the full employee share of officers' pensions.
Talks between city officials and the police union have stalled, and both sides have agreed to a one-day session in front of a third-party mediator, said Dustin Smith, head of the police union. Smith said he was hopeful that mediation session would help move negotiations forward.
The Measure U deficit could also be eased with money from federal reimbursements of city ambulance transports of Medi-Cal patients. City officials, however, do not know how much of that money if any they might get in the future.
Warren and Schenirer said they were uneasy voting for a budget that could cause future deficits.
"I'm still concerned about trying to operate outside of our comfort level without knowing where our resources will end up," Warren said.
The councilman said he also voted against the budget plan because a proposal to shift council discretionary spending toward the Ceasefire gang prevention program was rejected.
Schenirer said, "I don't want to get into a position where in two years we are laying off people we just hired."
City Manager John Shirey could not guarantee that the city would avoid future deficits. He said "the council passed a one-year budget that is balanced, but we still have work to do in future years."
The use of council discretionary spending was a debate topic.
While critics have described the accounts as "slush funds," council members described the funding as a vital tool to serve their communities.
Ashby said her office relies on the funding for youth programs and many other projects in her North Natomas district.
Pannell had asked two weeks ago that $391,500 in money the city receives from cellular companies that operate cell towers on city land be transferred to the discretionary accounts. Each council member and the mayor will receive $43,500 from that pool, adding to the $55,000 they already receive.
That money had been earmarked for the general fund budget.
Warren, who represents North Sacramento, proposed that the cell tower money be used to fund Ceasefire, which works to intervene with gang members.
The Ceasefire program will cost $490,000 for one year in Del Paso Heights, but an effort is under way to raise $120,000 for that effort.
Pannell voiced support for using the cell tower money for gang intervention programs but argued that her south Sacramento district is also a magnet for gang activity and needs additional funding for prevention efforts.
After the council vote, Fong and McCarty said they would combine their new discretionary money to fund a gang prevention officer in the Police Department.
Public safety services were increased through the budget.
The Fire Department's Engine 1, which covers downtown, will remain active after it was scheduled to be shelved. And the Police Department received 18 additional positions, although many of those positions will remain vacant while recruits are trained.
The budget will also fund senior programs and expand the "Hot Spot" program launched by McCarty that opens up a community center for teens on Friday nights. All but one city pool will be open this summer, and park maintenance will increase after years of cutbacks.