The city of Sacramento rejected recommendations for budget accountability and public participation, and that should concern anyone who is considering supporting Measure U.
More than a year ago, residents wrote a letter asking for data on where city money was being spent. After several meetings, the answer was simple: the system the city used to track money wasn’t sophisticated enough to answer our questions. The city could tell us how many employees worked in each department, but not what that meant for community centers or street improvements.
When we gathered to discuss the Measure U the sales tax on the Nov. 6 ballot, we shared a half dozen instances when the city committed significant public resources with little public input, including $30 million over 30 years for the new Powerhouse Science Center, as much as $17 million to entice the Amazon headquarters and $2 million in lost lease payments in a partnership with Verizon to bring 5G service to the city.
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We also quickly realized that the new promises being made to fund public transit, affordable housing, parks, libraries, economic development and community services would likely be unrealistic given the commitment of Measure U dollars to police and fire services. The more organizations we talked to, the more it became clear that Measure U money had been “promised” at least twice over.
In September, 350 Sacramento, Black Lives Matter Sacramento, Organize Sacramento and many others sent a letter to the mayor and City Council. Our request was simple: Commit to meaningful budget transparency measures, or we would vote “no” on Measure U.
This request wasn’t reached lightly. We know what voting against Measure U could mean for services we care about. However, we also know that the city is in dire need of budget reform before we can have confidence that the money will be spent where we need it most.
This is bigger than Measure U; it’s about leveraging all of our resources to ensure the promises being made to our communities are kept.
Our letter asked the city to commit to four key changes: defining community engagement standards for all decisions, conducting impact assessments at the end of each fiscal year, adopting participatory budgeting and creating a citizen oversight process -- not just for Measure U, but for the entire city budget.
Despite these reasonable requests, the mayor and council have decided that our concerns aren’t relevant to the Measure U debate. Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s message to us was simple: Don’t waste your time fighting this. If Measure U fails and there’s a $50 million gap in the city budget, there will be nothing left to talk about.
We don’t buy it. If there’s anything we’ve learned it’s that the status of the city budget isn’t clear. For all we know, money that is currently being used to host festivals and subsidize private development could be redirected to protect the programs we care about.
If the city is going to keep the ambitious promises being made to our communities in this election, it needs to be willing to be transparent and accountable for the entire budget. We’re not against taxing ourselves to pay for essential services; we’re against blank checks.