Sacramento mayor’s critics left out as City Council advances $16 million budget surplus plan

The Sacramento City Council voted Tuesday to move ahead with a $1.2 billion city budget that funds youth sports facilities, a river trail and an increase in public safety, but left out $14 million for a North Natomas aquatic center and other projects requested by critics of Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s surplus spending plan.

Councilwoman Angelique Ashby of North Natomas sought funding for the aquatic center from a city budget surplus, but Steinberg’s proposal to spend $16 million of the surplus left the request out. Ashby and Councilman Jeff Harris have been vocal critics of a plan by Steinberg to dedicate millions of dollars from the city budget to pay for bonds that would fund projects in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Steinberg and other council members pledged to continue exploring a funding plan for the pool facility in the weeks ahead.

“You can’t do this, you guys. You can’t leave a fifth of the city behind and say ‘this is a statement of our values,’” Ashby said.

The council’s budget committee – comprised of the entire City Council – voted unanimously to move the budget forward and 8-1 on the mayor’s $16 million surplus proposal, with Harris voting against it. The council will vote again next week to formally adopt the budget.

Ashby said if the city does not allocate $14 million in the next 90 days to build the pool, it will become much more expensive and the project could be killed.

Bids are due Friday for a new contractor for the pool complex, Ashby said. Once one is chosen, price estimates are locked in for 90 days, Fran Halbakken, a city project executive said.

“The project has almost doubled in price in two years and will again increase in price if we wait six months to a year,” Ashby said.

The project also needs about $10 million from the Natomas Unified School District, which is not yet secured, though Ashby said she has letters from five board members saying they support the project.

Councilman Steve Hansen argued that leaving the pool out of the budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 does not mean it won’t happen. He said the money should not be approved until a funding plan is complete, and asked City Manager Howard Chan to present that plan by the end of July. The council agreed, and approved the mayor’s $16 million proposal with that caveat.

“This is not a do or die moment. This is another step in the direction,” Hansen said. “Natomas isn’t going to be forgotten.”

Ashby and Harris have been vocal critics of the mayor’s desire, which the council recommended Tuesday, to set aside $40 million of an expected $50 million in new sales tax revenue for disadvantaged areas and to use some of that money to repay bonds that would fund projects in such neighborhoods.

“I campaigned specifically for the second half cent (approved by Sacramento voters in November) and devised it to invest most of the second half cent in the neighborhoods and in economic development, and especially in disadvantaged neighborhoods,” Steinberg said. “This is just a beginning, it is not an end.”

Several of the 90 public speakers at the council committee hearing Tuesday made the case that the pool would be used by residents from across the city, not just Natomas. It would be the first 50-meter public pool in the city.

“Childrens’ sports is a multi-billion dollar industry that right now does not live in Sacramento when it comes to swimming,” Ashby said.

An emotional Alison Appel of Arden Arcade told the City Council she drives to Davis for her daughter to practice at their 50-meter pool twice a day.

Jaymes Butler of North Natomas said many other municipalities in the region have 50-meter pools, including Lodi, Stockton and Woodland.

“Why is it that North Natomas is always having to fight for things that other communities already have?” Butler asked the council. “Every other (council district) has a community center ... the bids are out and everything is ready to go. So I hope you correct this wrong.”

The mayor’s $16 million plan includes about $11 million for disadvantaged neighborhoods, including $1.9 million for new baseball and soccer fields in Del Paso Heights; and $1.3 million to restore the Iceland ice staking rink in north Sacramento.

No single project in his proposal is more than $2.2 million.

The plan also includes some amenities for the city’s wealthier neighborhoods, such as $2.03 million for a riverfront bike trail in Pocket/Greenhaven; $600,000 to support Fairytale Town’s expansion in Land Park; $750,000 to relocate the LGBT Center in midtown; and $635,000 for a pedestrian and bike safety study in Pocket/Greenhaven.

Steinberg’s proposal also contained none of Harris’ requests, including $1 million for Northgate Boulevard improvements and $4.5 million to finish a renovation of the South Natomas Community Center, according to a $47 million list of council requests obtained by The Sacramento Bee.

“I think it’s a glaring error in judgment on the mayor’s part,” Harris said about his and Ashby’s districts being left out of the mayor’s proposal. “Why are the needs of Pocket and Greenhaven more important than Northgate? They’re not. Northgate is underserved. The Pocket is not underserved.”

Harris’s motion to include nearly $2 million of projects for Northgate in the budget did not pass, but Steinberg committed to working with Harris to bring a package of Northgate projects to the City Council within 90 days.

“I commit to you that North and South Natomas, Northgate and Gardenland, if I have anything to do with it, will receive substantial Measure U funding in the near term,” Steinberg said.

The mayor’s list also included several citywide projects, which will benefit Ashby and Harris’ districts, such as $1 million to let kids ride public transit for free, and $1.3 million to expand “pop up” weekend activity nights for teens, Steinberg said.

The committee recommended the full council approve the mayor’s list off projects and the full $1.2 billion proposed fiscal year 2019-20 budget. The budget moves on to a full City Council vote next week, although that vote is likely a formality given that every council member also sits on the budget committee that met Tuesday.

If it is the same, the city will have $32 million in new Measure U money for the Measure U citizen committees and the council to decide how to spend throughout the year. A Natomas pool funding could be included in that pot.

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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.