When feathering your own nest, best to keep quiet about it. So it seems for Sacramento City Council members and their discretionary accounts.
Thursday evening, during the first hearing on the 2014-15 city budget, officials twice highlighted the $391,500 line item that continues to boost these unrestricted funds by $43,500 for each council member to nearly $100,000 total.
Not a peep from council members. Evidently, they’re hoping there won’t be a big stink because there’s a projected general fund surplus for the first time in seven years.
Granted, these district allocations don’t amount to a ton of money in the $383 million general fund budget. But every penny counts when basic services are still not fully restored from the recession, even with all Sacramentans paying a higher local sales tax to help.
For instance, the discretionary cash could put a few more cops on the street, on top of the 14 to be added already. Or it could expand one of the few proposed new initiatives – the “Justice for Neighbors” program to clean up dilapidated and abandoned buildings that are a blight on neighborhoods. Or it could almost double the amount the city plans to put this year in its rainy-day fund.
What makes this more appalling is that when council members grabbed the money last June, they tried to quell criticism by promising to put their discretionary fund spending reports online so it would be easier for the public to review them.
Eleven months later, those reports are nowhere to be found.
City Clerk Shirley Concolino says there have been problems making the reports mesh with the city’s new Web portal, which launched in October. It’s a high priority and could be done before the end of June, she told The Bee’s editorial board.
Council members swear up and down that these are not slush funds – that the money goes to good causes in their districts. It shouldn’t take a public records request to see if that’s true.
When we filed a request last year and looked through the reports, we found that council members spread cash around to schools, libraries, youth programs, cultural groups, community events and assorted charities. But they also supported employee unions and spent on phone bills and other office expenses.
The public backlash is growing.
This week, the College-Glen Neighborhood Association urged its council member, Kevin McCarty, to push his colleagues to return the discretionary money – generated by cellphone tower rentals on city property – to the general fund to spruce up community parks. Parks in the College Greens and Glenbrook areas have broken benches, potholed soccer fields and missing barbecue grills, the association says.
McCarty pledges to bring up the issue before the budget is approved, scheduled for June 10. The next public hearing is set for May 27, when the council will focus on the fire, police and parks departments. There’s still time for residents to speak out.
If the council doesn’t change its mind on the discretionary money, McCarty says he plans to put his share into neighborhood parks. Of course, until council members finally keep their disclosure pledge, it won’t be easy to check.