Sacramento leaders have money to spend on parks, but worry about increasing staff

Angel Foley walks with her dog Pickle last year near the pond in Land Park. City leaders are discussing how to spend temporary sales tax revenue on upgrading parks.
Angel Foley walks with her dog Pickle last year near the pond in Land Park. City leaders are discussing how to spend temporary sales tax revenue on upgrading parks. jvillegas@sacbee.com

As the City Council decides how much money to spend on revitalizing and improving Sacramento’s parks, the promise and limitations of a recent hike in the sales tax hangs over officials.

On Tuesday, during a specially scheduled afternoon meeting, council members agreed that the city should use funds raised by Measure U, a sales tax increase voters approved in 2012, to pay for repairs and park improvements.

But deciding where that money should go and how exactly it should be spent proved to be much more divisive.

That’s because the tax, and the revenue it produces, is set to expire in 2019.

Several council members worried that investing Measure U money in personnel would create long-term commitments that the city may not be able to maintain after the tax expires.

“It was supposed to be a measure to restore. We had fallen on hard times and we needed a boost to restore parks, to restore police, to restore fire, to restore the things that had been cut,” Councilman Larry Carr said. “Measure U would make us well until the general fund got well enough to take over. That’s how you sold it to me. If we renege on that, it will be very difficult for us to go back to people and say, ‘The economy didn’t improve like we thought, so we’ll have to do different or we’re going to cut services.’ ”

Instead of channeling Measure U money into hiring more city employees, largely in parks and law enforcement, several council members said the money should instead be spent on infrastructure improvements.

City Manager John Shirey, who authored this year’s budget with significant involvement from Mayor Kevin Johnson and several council members, allocated $31.5 million of the city’s operating budget toward parks. Of that, $7.3 million, or 23 percent, would come from Measure U funds.

“As we were preparing our budget, we were once again reminded that there’s not a dedicated stream of funding to make sure park maintenance keeps up with new development,” Parks and Recreation Director Jim Combs said. “When times are good, there’s a landslide of money coming in. But when times are bad ...”

23% Share of city parks budget paid by Measure U funds

The plan presented on Tuesday included several fixes for parks drinking fountains, toilets, sinks and other infrastructure.

“But that’s not the extent of the need,” Shirey said. “We could have easily doubled (the $2 million designated) for fix-ups, but we were afraid we wouldn’t have the human resources to administer it.”

That’s because staff has been slipping. In 1981, he said, Sacramento’s parks system had one employee per every 6 acres of park land. Today, there is one employee per 29 acres.

Combs was asked to return to the council in the coming weeks with a more explicit plan and new numbers on how and where Measure U money might be best spent.

Council members offered their own ideas:

▪ Councilwoman Angelique Ashby said the funds should be used to restore services.

▪ Carr suggested a “moratorium” on parks spending until more thorough research had been done.

▪ Councilman Steve Hansen suggested researching, and possibly focusing on, the city’s potential liability with problems that may arise from infrastructure in disrepair.

▪ Councliman Jeff Harris suggested creating a reserve fund.

▪ Councilman Allen Warren wanted a citywide evaluation of which parks are the neediest and suggested restructuring how parks are funded.

“One thing that’s very clear is things are broken now,” Councilman Eric Guerra said.

Voters approved Measure U by a wide margin in 2012, agreeing to increase the city’s sales tax by half a percentage point to support city services that had been gutted during the recession.

The tax has been widely successful in opening new lines of revenue for hurting departments and was expected to generate nearly $10 million more than what was projected for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.