Kids, parks and pensions: Steinberg wants to spend a little more on Sacramento

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg speaks at the dedication of the new pool at Grant High School on March 28. He proposes spending $40,000 to keep the pool open all summer.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg speaks at the dedication of the new pool at Grant High School on March 28. He proposes spending $40,000 to keep the pool open all summer. hamezcua@sacbee.com

Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s suggestions for the city’s $20 million budget surplus strike a reasonable balance between meeting pent-up needs while saving toward long-term costs.

His proposals are as small as $40,000 to keep the new Grant High pool open throughout the summer, as big as setting aside $5 million toward higher contributions to CalPERS, and as significant as reserving $2 million for a new economic development plan the council is to approve this summer.

The council unanimously gave its initial blessing to the $12.5 million priority list Tuesday night. Unless red flags emerge, the items should be included in the final 2017-18 budget to be adopted June 13.

Some suggestions, however, are contentious. For instance, the mayor endorsed a request from Councilman Steve Hansen to spend $1 million to renovate the rundown Land Park Amphitheater, which hosts the Shakespeare in the Park series each summer.

But the volunteer corps that stepped up to take care of the park during the Great Recession urged the council to focus instead on fixing bathrooms and irrigation and making other repairs.

Steinberg agrees that city parks need more upkeep, but told a member of The Bee’s editorial board that the amphitheater could become a destination – part of his bid to make Sacramento more attractive to visitors who will pay hotel taxes to help pay for an expanded convention center. Hansen says that other repairs are already planned at Land Park and that it’s important to support community facilities and the arts.

The mayor put together his 10-page priority list after taking into account wish lists from council members and input from public forums in each council district. Steinberg also wants to add spending for youth programs, bike trails, the arts and for neighborhoods, including $100,000 to help homeowners remove unsightly chain-link fencing.

Because of timing, City Manager Howard Chan wasn’t able to incorporate these items in the frugal budget he recommended in April. They are one-time spending, not new or expanded programs that will deepen deficits that could start as soon as next year.

Like Chan, Steinberg stresses the need to prepare for long-term obligations, such as labor contracts, retirement costs, maintenance on aging infrastructure and, most of all, higher payments to CalPERS. They are projected to nearly double from $67 million in 2017-18 to $129 million in 2022-23 – money that can’t go to services and pet projects.

He wants to focus on offsetting those costs by moving to ask voters to renew Measure U, the half-cent sales tax that is raising $44 million this year for public safety and parks and that expires in March 2019.

He also wants more clarity on how much might come in from taxing the commercial marijuana industry starting after California voters legalized recreational pot last November. Some early estimates are about $8 million more from cultivation and delivery-only dispensaries; there are no figures on manufacturing. Steinberg says without a better idea of how much revenue could be generated, the council doesn’t have a true picture of the city’s finances.

He’s right about that. As the only official elected citywide, Steinberg deserves to get a big say on the budget. Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, who ran against Steinberg last year, endorsed the blueprint, calling it a balanced and responsible approach. That should reassure residents and taxpayers, too.