Should Sacramento save some money for its looming ’fiscal cliff’—or spend it all?

Leaders are eager to run through new Measure U revenue and restore lost services despite looming budget challenges

Sacramento city officials are debating how much anticipated Measure U money to spend this year on more cops and firefighters, and how much to save for a feared “fiscal cliff” in 2019.

Sacramento city officials are debating how much anticipated Measure U money to spend this year on more cops and firefighters, and how much to save for a feared “fiscal cliff” in 2019.

A schism is developing between city leaders who want to blow a big chunk of voter-approved tax monies now and those wanting to store away some for Sacramento’s approaching fiscal winter.

Underpinning the conflict is the question of how many cops and fire engines are enough in a city of Sacramento’s size and needs.

“That is kind of the magic question, isn’t it?” Officer Doug Morse, a spokesman for the Sacramento Police Department, told SN&R. “You want to strike a good balance based on budgets and resources.”

But during an afternoon city-council meeting last week, elected officials seemed more concerned with good politics than a good balance.

“We were loud and clear to the voters, and they loud-and-clear said, ’Amen, restore core city services,’” said Councilman Kevin McCarty. “So, I think we need to be crystal clear and plow those monies in there.”

The half-cent Measure U tax’s first-year haul is estimated at $27 million. Based on this, the city’s financial analysts penciled in the addition of 51 police-department and 20 fire-department employees through the end of the upcoming fiscal year. The parks-and-recreation department would add back about 71 full-time employees.

The city won’t see its first penny from the general tax until late June, and won’t really know what to expect from the six-year tax hike until September, officials said.

As a result, the city’s finance officials recommended holding some of the tax revenue in reserve. A number of positions funded through grants are also set to expire, explained finance director Leyne Milstein. Without having money to cover the loss of those grants, the city could be forced to give up 27 police officers and almost an entire fire company in fiscal year 2014-15, she said.

But council members remained bullish.

“Given the public’s resounding support for Measure U, we have to take a little more risk than we would with our base budget,” suggested Councilman Steve Cohn.

He believed the city should err on the side of restoring more services than what staff proposed, even if it meant reducing the amount of reserves built for the city’s so-called fiscal cliff in 2019, when the Measure U money runs out and the restored jobs will cost more.

If the city’s general-fund revenues haven’t seen “significant increases” by then, a staff report states, it won’t be able to keep funding all the positions it bought back.

While Cohn acknowledged the council’s eyes may be bigger than its stomach, he and others wanted the option of adding more to next year’s bill.

“I would really like to push this analysis,” he said. “Add as much as we can.”

Council members Darrell Fong, Allen Warren and Angelique Ashby (in a letter) also favored hiring more cops and firefighters this year, particularly in their own districts.

But information regarding how many cops and firefighters are actually needed—or what constitutes optimum staffing levels—was in short supply.

When it comes to police services, the average for the Pacific region is two officers for every thousand residents, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Police spokesman Morse said the department currently has 1.34 officers for every thousand residents in the city. At optimal staffing, that would give the police department somewhere around 944 sworn officers. At last count, it had 653.

Budget cuts over the last five years resulted in the city implementing rotating brownouts at some of its fire stations. In March, the council cut those brownouts in half down to two. The department used overtime to pick up the workload, since it didn’t have enough trained firefighters.

Fire Chief Ray Jones is nursing 34 vacancies in his department, mostly through attrition. Even with council members offering to throw more money at his department, Jones cautioned that he wouldn’t be able to hire enough people to restore an additional engine six months ahead of the current schedule. A fire-department training academy began last week with 24 cadets.

“The thing we’re concerned about is not having enough trained people to staff them,” he said.

Councilman Steve Hansen was the only one who suggested pumping the brakes on all the Measure U excitement.

“I’m very leery of spending money we don’t know we have yet on things we want to have,” he said. “Our needs are far greater than Measure U or our general fund can provide for.

“We can’t just say yes to everybody.”