As the Sacramento City Council battled budget deficits totaling more than $200 million over the past seven years, hearings on the spending plans regularly attracted overflow crowds to City Hall.
This year, the council faced a rare budget surplus. And about a dozen people showed up when the plan was approved Tuesday evening.
After deliberating for 10 minutes, the City Council voted unanimously to approve a spending plan that did not include cuts to programs and staffing for the first time since the peak of the recession. Six of the nine council members – including Mayor Kevin Johnson – had never approved a budget with a surplus.
“It’s really wonderful that we’re not cutting,” said Councilman Jay Schenirer, who was just elected to a second four-year term and voted for his first surplus budget.
The optimistic atmosphere could be short-lived. After a projected $1.9 million surplus in the fiscal year that begins July 1 and another surplus next year, city officials are projecting deficits to return in 2016. Those budget gaps could reach $41 million by 2019 if city voters don’t extend a half-percentage-point sales tax increase approved in 2012.
The grim outlook is the result of increasing employee benefit liabilities facing the city, according to a budget report. The city is projecting that its total contribution to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System will increase by $32 million by 2019. Rising salaries for workers and hundreds of millions of dollars in unfunded retiree medical benefits will add to the challenging budget situation, officials said.
City Manager John Shirey said budget officials would come back to the council soon with plans to bring “future year numbers back into line” and said Sacramento would have a “stable, sustainable government living within our means.”
For now, the City Council will accept a budget that adds services.
Measure U – the voter-approved sales tax increase – provided $29 million to the spending plan. It includes funding to open every city pool that is in working order this summer. The Police Department will add 14 officers to its ranks, and the Fire Department is receiving $11.7 million to maintain staffing and to eliminate the practice of shutting down fire rigs on a rotating basis.
Programs aiding the homeless and targeting blighted properties will also receive a boost.
Council members asked for a few late additions to the budget. Councilmen Steve Hansen and Schenirer requested $65,300 be spent to restore everyday service at the Historic City Cemetery. Schenirer asked that $100,000 be allocated to the city auditor’s budget to fund contracting services, and Councilman Kevin McCarty requested that the city spend $3,120 to fund a program that provides life jackets on the rivers.
Hansen and Councilman Darrell Fong requested that the city add an animal control officer using Measure U money. Councilman Allen Warren asked that a park safety ranger be funded with $84,600 of money from the sales tax revenue.