(TNS) — The Sacramento, Calif., City Council appears to be moving forward with a plan to redirect money from the city budget toward a new “participatory budget” fund.
However, it appears unlikely the council will reduce its public safety budgets to support the new fund, despite recommendations from a citizen committee and requests by some activists. The city’s two largest public safety unions sent a letter to the council on Tuesday opposing reductions to their budgets.
The city’s Measure U Community Advisory Committee recommended the council remove $15 million from the city budget to put into a new fund to allow the public to decide how to spend it. The committee suggested the money come from the police and fire budgets, or from money set to fund capital improvement projects and pay down debt.
The idea, called “participatory budgeting,” is used by dozens of cities to get input from underserved communities who do not typically come to council meetings or seek out existing options for providing public input, said committee member Debra Oto-Kent. Mayor Darrell Steinberg expressed strong support for the idea, but is seeking to start with $5 million, not $15 million.
Instead of the police and fire budgets, Steinberg proposed the city get the $5 million by not filling some vacant positions. The temporarily unfilled vacancies would not be sworn police and fire positions, but could be non-sworn positions in the police and fire departments, he said. The council will consider that idea at a future meeting.
“The community is crying out for more of a voice,” Steinberg said. “This has the potential to create more trust and even a bond between elected officials, overall city government and all of the people.”
Flojaune Cofer, chairwoman of the Measure U Committee, which provides advice on how to spend revenue from a sales tax increase, said she was pleased the council took a step forward. However, she is urging them to set aside the full $15 million by reducing funds from the police and fire budgets. The committee singled out those departments because they receive large shares of the city’s general fund budget and have also received Measure U funds, Cofer said.
The committee is tasked with helping the council decide how to spend the estimated $50 million per year in tax revenue from the Measure U sales tax increase voters approved in 2018. Throughout 2018, Steinberg said the Measure U money would be largely used to uplift under served communities, but when the pandemic hit, the city quickly diverted it to fund core city services instead, without getting formal committee input.
The police department’s current budget is an all-time-high $157 million – up from $131.6 million in fiscal year 2017-18.
To make up for the Measure U redirect, Steinberg said the city spent most of its $89 in federal coronavirus stimulus funds toward helping under resourced communities. Cofer has said the city needs to also give back some of the Measure U funds that were used for core city services.
“There is still a disconnect between what people have asked for, which is more investment in their communities,” Cofer said after the meeting, pointing out that $5 million is far less than $50 million.
The council might not end up approving the $5 million, however. Council members Jeff Harris and Larry Carr said they need to know more about participatory budgeting before they would approve it.
“This whole discussion about participatory budgeting presupposes the council is not getting it right,” Harris said. “To craft a city budget that meets our constituents’ needs, that’s basically our job description.”
Cofer said that the city should not listen to all residents’ complaints equally, but listen to the voices of people more in the communities that are hurting the most.
“The status quo isn’t gonna cut it,” Cofer said. “We have to do something different if we’re going to be addressing the needs of people who have been left out.”
Participatory budgeting will also become part of the city charter if voters approve a “strong mayor” initiative Nov. 3. The committee wants it to be part of the charter even if voters reject “strong mayor.”
Public Safety Union Opposition
About five hours before the meeting, the Sacramento Police Officers Association and the Sacramento Area Fire Fighters Local 522 issued a joint statement strongly opposing the idea to remove funding from either department.
“As you know, the City Council’s goal is to ensure that the overall needs of every community member is met, not just the demands of a small, but very vocal group of people making demands that could set back the progress our city has made,” the statement said.
More than 300 people earlier this year submitted written comments to the Measure U committee saying they wanted either less city money or no city money going to the police, Cofer said previously.
The union statement also said previous budget cuts following the Great Recession resulted in violent crime investigations to stop, response times to increase, public counters to close and response to burglaries and traffic collisions to be cut back.
The statement also claimed that “defunding” the police would decrease diversity on the force because the most diverse officers are the newest officers
The “defund movement” has been causing cities to reduce police funding this summer in the wake of police brutality protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. That city is disbanding and recreating its police department. In July, the Los Angeles City Council removed about $150 million from its police department budget.
Sacramento has not yet removed any police funding, though a plan to overhaul the 911 response system will shift money from the police over two years, Steinberg has said.
Law enforcement unions have given roughly $305,000 to City Council members, candidates and ballot measures over the last decade; that includes nearly $265,000 from the city police union, according to campaign finance records.
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