Is Sacramento mayor playing Chicago politics? Budget plan blasted as ‘retributive justice’

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg is being accused of playing Chicago-style politics, seeking retribution against two critics on the City Council by ignoring their districts in a $16 million spending proposal.

Steinberg’s plan for spending part of the city’s budget surplus does not include new projects in the neighborhoods represented by Council members Angelique Ashby and Jeff Harris. Both have repeatedly raised concerns about the mayor’s desire to set aside $40 million of an expected $50 million in new Measure U sales tax revenue for disadvantaged areas and to use some of that money to repay bonds that would fund projects in underserved neighborhoods.

Ashby represents the rapidly-growing North Natomas neighborhood, and Harris’ district covers East Sacramento, South Natomas and other neighborhoods along the American River. Combined, the council members represent well over 100,000 people.

“I am extremely disappointed to see that Districts 1 and 3 are wholly left out of the Mayor’s budget priorities,” Ashby wrote in a text message to The Sacramento Bee. “I fully support all the other council district items and the city at large. We can do so much good for so many right now. But I would hope my colleagues would also support Council member Harris and myself. I can’t help but feel that the Mayor is implementing his own retributive justice to us for standing up for what we believe in.”

Harris said he was disappointed that all of Natomas was excluded, although it represents roughly 20 percent of the city’s population.

“I am disappointed that Mayor Steinberg has not used the merits of his ideas to get council buy in, is neglecting sound political process, and seems to be currying votes by trying to push projects in districts that could represent a swing vote,” Harris said in an email to the Bee.

Aside from citywide initiatives, Steinberg’s $16 million proposal includes five projects in Councilman Allen Warren’s north Sacramento district totaling $3.6 million. Warren is considered a potential swing vote on the mayor’s Measure U spending plan.

Mary Lynne Vellinga, Steinberg’s spokeswoman, said Warren submitted several specific proposals that met the mayor’s goals of helping disadvantaged areas.

Steinberg’s proposal also includes money for two projects in the Pocket/Greenhaven neighborhood of Councilman Rick Jennings’ district totaling $2.66 million; two projects in Councilman Eric Guerra’s south Sacramento district worth $2.2 million; four projects in the central city district represented by Councilman Steve Hansen totaling $2.1 million; one project in Councilman Larry Carr’s Meadowview district worth $500,000; and one project in Councilman Jay Schenirer’s district totaling $50,000.

Guerra, Schenirer and Jennings have come out largely in support of the mayor’s Measure U proposals this month, while Ashby and Harris have raised the most vocal concerns, including columns saying the mayor’s bonding proposal could bankrupt the city.

Steinberg’s proposal did not include $14.3 million in funding Ashby requested for a Natomas aquatic center — seven times more expensive than any other single requested project, according to a $47 million list of council requests obtained by the Bee. Steinberg’s proposal also contained none of Harris’ requests: $1.5 million for the Garden and Arts Center in South Natomas, $1 million for Northgate Boulevard improvements, $4.5 million for the South Natomas Community Center and $2 million for the Two Rivers Trail.

In forming his $16 million list, the mayor was focused on disadvantaged neighborhoods — including Del Paso Heights in Warren’s district— as well as amenities that serve the entire city, according to Vellinga.

“The list does not exclude any projects,” Vellinga said in a statement on Steinberg’s behalf. “It appropriately delegates to the Measure U committees and ultimately to the City Council how to best prioritize larger investments. In consultation with my Council colleagues, I have identified some early wins that demonstrate that we’re committed to investing in our kids and in neighborhoods that have long been overlooked.”

The list also includes about $100,000 for a city childcare manager and $150,000 for a zoo relocation study, both supported by Ashby, as well as $600,000 to renovate a historic building in Winn Park, requested by Hansen but just blocks from Harris’ district, Vellinga said.

If the council funds the mayor’s $16 million in projects, about $34 million in surplus money would remain, which could fund the Natomas pool if the council so chooses, Vellinga said. Also, if the city issues bonds repaid by budget dollars – under a proposal made by Hansen – it could receive $125 million next fiscal year, and some of that money could fund the pool.

Ashby said it could be a year until the city gets the bonding revenue, though, and it could take months for city committees and the council to allocate the remaining surplus money.

If the city doesn’t fund the aquatics center soon, money already spent on the project could be lost and the project could die, Ashby said. A general contractor has been selected for the project and bids are now being collected for additional contractors, Ashby said.

The Natomas Unified School District has committed $1 million on a road to improve traffic near the planned aquatic center, said district spokesman Jim Sanders. District staff have also set aside $4 million for the center, though it still needs board approval.

“If the city is not going to close the gap on its end, and make a financial commitment, it’s unlikely the project would get built,” Sanders said. “It’s not a project we can take on alone.”

The district would also consider funding an additional $6 million toward the center, if the city funded the $14.3 million, Ashby said.

Harris agreed with funding a few essential items in the budget that starts July 1, such as teen activity nights, but said that spending as much as $16 million in new Measure U money before asking the Measure U committees “violates the ballot language” from the November election. That language said the money would be spent with “citizen oversight.”

At Tuesday’s council meeting, when the council will vote on whether to fund the mayor’s $16 million list, Ashby plans to ask her colleagues to add her pool and Harris’ requests.

“There is enough money to fulfill all the submitted council priority requests,” Ashby wrote in a Facebook post. “We don’t have to choose between neighborhoods and we don’t have to leave anyone out.”

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Theresa Clift covers Sacramento City Hall. Before joining The Bee in 2018, she worked as a local government reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Daily Press in Virginia and the Wausau Daily Herald in Wisconsin. She grew up in Michigan and graduated from Central Michigan University.