Sacramento’s $40 million question

Bites has been wondering how on Earth the city is going to get out of yet another near-record budget deficit. The projected shortfall is $35 million to $40 million, about the same as it was this time last year.

Here’s one possibility: Government could stop doing anything—anything at all—aside from police and fire service.

No parks, no street repairs, no swimming pools, no leaf collection, no economic development, no after-school programs, no nothing.

It sounds ridiculous, impossible. But that’s pretty much the direction we’ve been headed in. Every year, as budget deficits grind on, basic public safety has become an ever bigger share of the budget pie, while the rest withers away.

Sure, there have been cuts to police and fire, but not proportional to other departments. A couple of years ago, public safety represented 68 percent of the city’s discretionary net general fund budget. This year it’s 82 percent.

Indeed, public safety commanded $194 million in the last budget. Everything else, just $42 million. Coincidentally, “everything else” more or less equals the amount of spending the city has to eliminate this year.

Another alternative would be for the city council to spread the pain equally among all departments, including much deeper cuts to public safety—something that’s been politically unpalatable so far. So say goodbye to everything else.

Regular SN&R readers will recall “The regents club,” by investigative reporter Peter Byrne back in October.

Byrne found the University of California Board of Regents approved investments in which they had personal financial interests. Regent Richard Blum, who is an investment banker and husband to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, was a particular focus (see “The regents club” by Peter Byrne; SN&R Feature; October 7, 2010).

The investigative project was sponsored by (with contributions from SN&R among other alt weeklies) and is an interesting experiment in “community-funded journalism.”

Community-funded journalism can pay off: Byrne nabbed something called the James Madison Freedom of Information Award from the Society of Professional Journalists Northern California chapter this month.

Blum has since left the UC regents’ investment committee. The California state Legislature is also conducting an audit of the UC’s financial practices.

Back in happier, more hopeful times—and who knew the Gray Davis administration would look so good from here?—Bites had occasion to meet then-California Secretary of Health and Human Services Grantland Johnson.

There were lots of muckety-mucks in suits at this event, the purpose of which Bites forgot long ago, so Johnson didn’t particularly stand out at first.

That is, until Johnson closed in to shake hands—a multipart, palm-clapping, finger-locking soul handshake that you’d be more likely to get from an old-school poet than from a state bureaucrat.

Over the years, Bites has come to regard Johnson not only as a very cool dude, but as a force for good government and an encyclopedia of institutional knowledge.

Raised in Del Paso Heights, a graduate of Grant Union High School, Johnson served on the Sacramento City Council in the 1980s and did a couple of tours on the county board of supervisors before the joining Bill Clinton’s Health and Human Services Department, then taking over as head of HHS under Gov. Davis.

More recently, he’s worked as a labor and a housing consultant, and served on the Sacramento Charter Review Committee which found Kevin Johnson’s “strong mayor” proposal lacking.

For his lifetime of service, Johnson this weekend will have a soccer field named after him in Hagginwood Park. Bites is sure it won’t be the last landmark to bear this man’s name.