Renée C. Byer /

Judy McClaver, a volunteer with East Sacramento Preservation Neighborhood Association, helps clean the McKinley Park pond. About $4.7 million of the city’s sales tax windfall is being used this year to restore parks maintenance.

Editorial: A watchdog on Sacramento sales tax windfall finally reports for duty

Published: Tuesday, Mar. 4, 2014 - 12:00 am

When a new Sacramento citizens oversight committee starts work Wednesday, it might be tempting to declare another victory for accountability and transparency.

Except that what the panel is supposed to monitor – a half-cent local sales tax hike – has been filling up city coffers for 11 months already. And except that it has been 16 months since voters approved Measure U, after being warned incessantly that without the windfall, public safety would fall apart.

It’s pathetic – and it has damaged the city’s credibility.

City officials blame the long delay mostly on difficulty finding qualified people willing to serve, especially for the seat reserved for a certified public accountant. Yet the city showed little urgency in starting the application process, or in recruiting possible applicants once the problem became apparent. It wasn’t until last November that the City Council committee in charge nominated the panel’s members.

The fact remains that it took until now for the city to keep its promise to voters.

Because of its late start, the five-member committee has a lot of catching up to do.

At their first meeting (5:30 p.m. Wednesday in the City Council chambers), committee members are supposed to review the city’s official financial report for 2012-13, covering three months of sales tax receipts. They will also look at the midyear update on the 2013-14 budget, which includes $25.8 million in Measure U money. It is being spent to restore police patrols, fire protection, parks maintenance, animal control and library services – all of which were slashed during the recession. About 230 employee positions were also restored.

Most of the specific restorations appear to be on schedule, according to the budget update, but there are some areas worth watching. The addition of two medic units has been delayed while the Fire Department studies how they will be staffed. Also, it’s eye-opening to see that of 2,250 police applicants, more than 1,900 did not meet minimum qualifications.

Also, there have been some glitches with collecting the higher sales tax. There has been confusion among some businesses outside the city limits about whether they should be charging it. The city is working with the state Board of Equalization to sort it out.

Rather quickly, the oversight committee will have to turn its focus to preparing a written report for the City Council to consider during the deliberations this spring on the 2014-15 budget, which starts July 1.

While the committee has an official list of duties, its members should not hesitate to ask tough questions and to take a broader view of their mandate. Given how long they’ve been waiting to get started, City Hall ought to allow them that much.

Read more articles by the Editorial Board

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