Sacramento City Council goes on a spending spree

Mayor Kevin Johnson delivers the 2015 State of the City speech, in which he declared he was taking a bigger role in the city budget.
Mayor Kevin Johnson delivers the 2015 State of the City speech, in which he declared he was taking a bigger role in the city budget. Sacramento Bee file

The wheels are greased for approval Tuesday night of a Sacramento city budget that significantly boosts spending to add police officers, firefighters and parks workers but that deepens a dangerous hole in the budget in only a few years.

Before City Council members sign off, they ought to think again about so drastically changing course from the frugality that produced two straight surpluses, even if it is for worthy causes.

Council members are expected to approve a 2015-16 budget that adds nearly $7 million to the plan recommended by City Manager John Shirey, which already increased general fund spending by $20 million. The $7 million would pay for 18 new parks workers, 15 more police officers and 15 firefighters for a new fire company in Natomas.

To put off a looming deficit in the general fund, the additional money will come out of Measure U, the temporary half-cent sales tax that is bringing in more than $40 million a year. That shell game, however, only means that the “fiscal cliff” will be even steeper when the sales tax expires in 2019. And if the economy sours before then, painful budget cuts could come sooner.

Consequently, it would now be a shock if City Hall didn’t ask voters to renew the sales tax before then.

In 2019-20, the city’s total budget deficit is projected at $35 million – a figure that does not include any additional labor costs. Those expenses are likely to increase as contracts with the city’s major employee unions expire in 2017 and 2018.

And while the budget provides immediate gratification, it does not boost the city’s rainy day fund and barely makes any dent in the city’s unfunded liability for retiree health care.

Three council members have opposed the additional spending, but Mayor Kevin Johnson has six votes to push it through.

In the budget, Johnson’s office would gain five staffers costing nearly $700,000 a year, including three that were hidden in the city manager’s budget. The mayor made it worse by hiring one of them, a new legislative adviser, before the funding for his position was officially approved. Through a public records request, The Sacramento Bee’s Marissa Lang found out that Scott Whyte, formerly a regional housing industry political director, began work April 23.

In a Viewpoints piece Tuesday, the mayor writes that these new staffers will help him follow through on downtown housing, community policing and other important initiatives. All well and good, but it requires money that could have gone to paying for police officers or parks workers.

This year, Johnson wrested more control of the budget, even though voters last November soundly rejected his “strong mayor” measure to give him more authority, including over city spending. Shirey included about $18 million of about $23 million on the mayor’s wish list.

Johnson portrays this budget as more in tune with the priorities of Sacramento residents, who took part in a poll commissioned by his office and who attended community meetings.

Fine, but once it is passed, Johnson owns it. He must be prepared to prove to taxpayers that all the additional spending was a good investment. And if he is still in office when the deficit hits, he better have a good plan to deal with it.