Proposed Sacramento budget follows Mayor Kevin Johnson’s priorities

Among Mayor Kevin Johnson’s “Sacramento 3.0” budget priorities are $2.1 million to draft a master plan to speed up housing downtown and $1.1 million for a homeless initiative.
Among Mayor Kevin Johnson’s “Sacramento 3.0” budget priorities are $2.1 million to draft a master plan to speed up housing downtown and $1.1 million for a homeless initiative. lsterling@sacbee.com

Three themes come through clearly in the spending blueprint put forward Monday by Sacramento City Manager John Shirey.

Even without “strong mayor” powers, Mayor Kevin Johnson is driving the budget bus. As it should, City Hall is learning the lessons of Ferguson and now Baltimore, where protesters rioted Monday after the funeral of another unarmed black man who died in police custody. And while the city is past the doom and gloom of the Great Recession, it still faces expensive challenges in coming years.

In his recommendation for 2015-16, Shirey included nearly $19 million of about $23 million on the mayor’s list of “Sacramento 3.0” budget priorities. For instance, there’s $2.1 million to draft a master plan to speed up housing downtown, $1.1 million for a homeless initiative and $650,000 for better streetlights downtown near the arena and in midtown.

Shirey highlighted spending to improve police-community relations, also backed by Johnson. They include a test of body cameras for officers, sensitivity training for officers and $1 million to recruit and train more minority and female officers.

There were a few items that Shirey left off, saying they hadn’t been justified. They include more staff for the mayor’s gang prevention task force and for his income inequality task force. Johnson isn’t likely to give them up without a fight before the final budget is approved in June.

And Shirey pointedly said that some additions are marching orders from the mayor and council he didn’t support: three positions for a new independent budget analyst office he said isn’t necessary, another $160,000 from cell tower revenues to be divided up by the mayor and council for pet projects and two additional positions in the mayor’s office.

Those last two additions are questionable. Why are they more essential, for instance, than staffing up City Auditor Jorge Oseguera’s office? It has before the council Tuesday night a work plan that includes audits of fire department overtime and of local hiring at the new arena. With more staff, it could also check the city’s green energy efforts and water meter installation. Those seem worthwhile.

Shirey’s proposal includes some quality-of-life items slashed during the budget crunch: $2 million for parks repairs plus $760,000 more for ongoing maintenance, two new crews to tackle illegal dumping and six more positions at the animal shelter. These are all eminently sensible.

There’s one major project, however, that is looming. A task force appointed by the mayor is giving an update to the council Tuesday night on a potential new performing arts center. If that requires a substantial public contribution, it’s unclear where that money would come from.

The city is socking away $1 million toward its $452 million unfunded liability for retiree health care, but it will be difficult to make a significant dent. Shirey wants the council to decide before July 1 how to proceed.

And before they know it, council members must deal with Measure U, the half-cent sales tax that expires in 2019. Without that windfall, it won’t be easy to keep up public safety and other basic services.

With Measure U and the rebounding economy, this is the second budget in a row with a surplus. But this is a time for frugality, and for spending more only on the most important priorities.