City Beat

The Public Eye: Sacramento city officials say sales tax hike went to cops, firefighters, parks

The Public Eye
The Public Eye

Sacramento city officials say they’ve kept their word about how they would spend money raised by increasing the city’s sales tax.

In the first year that the one-half percent increase in sales tax has been collected, the city added nearly two dozen parks maintenance workers, placed more than 40 new police officers on the streets and identified money to end the controversial cost-cutting measure of closing down fire rigs on a rotating basis.

Still, some critics wonder whether the city could be doing more to properly oversee how the estimated $27 million a year in new tax money is being spent. A committee tasked with examining the expenses was slow to come together, critics charge, and is only now beginning to look at revenue spent last year.

Voters overwhelmingly approved Measure U in 2012, agreeing to raise the city’s sales tax rate to 8.5 percent. The tax increase will expire in March 2019.

City officials said there has been adequate oversight of the spending plan and that they are using the money as the public wanted.

“We’ve done exactly what we told the voters we would do,” City Manager John Shirey said. “We said we would restore city services in critical areas – police, fire and parks and recreation. And we said this money wouldn’t be used to give (current) employees raises.”

In the first year of collecting the revenue, the city spent $25.7 million on new and restored services, Shirey said. He added that the city expects to surpass its projection of collecting $27 million in Measure U money in the current fiscal year.

So far, the windfall has helped the Police Department uniformed ranks climb from a low of 653 to the current 694, with a class of about 30 recruits in the police academy scheduled to take the streets this summer.

The added personnel meant the city could hire a crime analyst who helps guide where the Police Department deploys its officers and four crime-scene investigators.

“It means we’re going to be able to have more eyes on the street and we’re going to be able to respond to calls quicker,” Shirey said.

In May, the final Fire Department “brownout” will be eliminated, Shirey said. That policy placed one fire rig on the shelf everyday on a rotating basis around the city. The new tax money also preserved 27 firefighter jobs that were funded by a federal grant that expired last year.

For the city’s vast parks system, “people will see visible results,” Shirey said. Restroom cleaning services, lawn maintenance and sprinkler repairs have all been increased. Eleven pools and five wading pools were kept open, and programs for young people and seniors have been restored.

Craig Powell, of the local watchdog group Eye on Sacramento, said it appears the city is spending the tax revenue in accord “with supporters’ representations to voters during the campaign on the measure.”

However, Powell said the oversight committee is “simply not adequate.” He criticized the city for taking more than a year to launch the board and said it lacks some of the authority it needs to do its job. The committee has met once and has scheduled a second meeting for May 7.

The committee’s structure – including how often it meets and how often it examines the tax expenditures – was established by the City Council, which makes the decision over how the Measure U funding is spent.

“(The committee) has no independent staff, no budget, no auditing powers, no subpoena powers,” Powell said.

He also criticized the committee’s examination of tax revenue from last year, saying that time difference is “way too long of a lag for its oversight to be meaningful or timely.”

So far, the committee is only examining how the first three months of sales tax revenue – from April 1, 2013, to June 30, 2013 – was spent. That’s roughly $4.8 million, leaving more than $20 million in spending unexamined by a third party.

The committee will examine the tax expenditures for the current fiscal year next spring.