Panel adjusts Sacramento budget plan to forestall deficit

A city committee tweaked Sacramento’s proposed budget Tuesday in hopes of postponing a deficit until 2018 by relying more on revenue from the city’s temporary sales tax hike.

The updated budget, which still needs final approval from the City Council, shifts the cost of staffing a new firetruck for Natomas from the city’s general fund to Measure U, a temporary sales tax increase that voters approved in 2012 and is set to expire in 2019.

The firetruck’s staffing, which includes 15 firefighters and costs about $1.4 million, would initially be covered by Measure U money, according to a report prepared by city staff. So, too, would 15 police officers and 18 parks workers.

“It’s a really good budget, and it demonstrates a commitment to the community,” City Councilman Jay Schenirer said. “People voted for Measure U, and we are restoring services ... The next step is implementation so we can really show people what they’re getting for their dollars.”

If the council approves the Budget and Audit Committee’s new version of the spending plan, Sacramento would get more time to determine how costs will be covered in the long-term before the general fund sinks into a deficit or the Measure U tax increase expires.

The last time the full City Council discussed the budget, eventually endorsing a budget that spends $6.9 million beyond what the city manager initially recommended, several members expressed misgivings about relying on Measure U money to fund long-term commitments, given that the tax has an expiration date.

“I see a lot of millions of dollars being spent here, all on noble causes,” Councilman Jeff Harris said. “My concern is these aren’t sustainable items.”

The cost of full-time city employees – a big part of the spending jump in this year’s budget – increases at a rate of about 4 percent per year, according to Leyne Milstein, Sacramento’s finance director.

Harris was one of three council members who voted against the spending plan, which included five additional employees for Mayor Kevin Johnson, a controversial provision after voters last year rejected his attempt to expand his powers through a strong-mayor initiative. City councilmen Larry Carr and Steve Hansen also voted “no.” The three are not on the Budget and Audit Committee.

Estimates show Measure U funds would continue to bring in about as much as the spending forecasts, given the city’s current commitments, leaving a reserve of about $29 million through fiscal year 2017-18, more than enough to cover the city’s $8.4 million general fund deficit expected that year.

But when the Measure U money runs out, the staff report shows, the city will have a nearly $35 million hole to fill in both general fund and Measure U commitments by fiscal year 2019-20.

The mayor and council members, who had unprecedented input over the budget’s creation this year, last week agreed to hire an independent budget analyst to suggest how the city may divvy up its resources moving forward. The Council selected Department of Finance analyst John Silva to fill that role at $145,000 a year.

The full council will hold its final vote on the amended budget on June 9.