PD Editorial: Let’s put these debates to rest: Yes on O and N

When Santa Rosa voters cast their ballots this fall they will have an opportunity to resolve two issues that have been hanging over City Hall for several years, including one that has caused questions about the fairness of how funding for city departments is allocated.

By approving Measure O, voters would be providing a long-needed fix to the wording of a ballot measure that, due largely to the recession, tied the hands of city officials in determining how much of its funding could go to police and fire services. Meanwhile, Measure N would lay to rest concerns about the city’s ongoing funding and extend the life of a quarter-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2010. The tax, which is due to expire in early 2018, is still needed and, by renewing it for another eight years, city residents would be strengthening the city’s financial footing and ensuring it would be able to maintain important services without fear of cutbacks.

We encourage voters to approve both measures on Nov. 8.

Of the two, Measure O is the more complicated and because of that, as a city consultant has indicated, it faces the greater risk of going down to defeat. Residents need to keep that from happening.

Measure O would fix the wording of a ballot measure — also known as Measure O – that was approved by voters in 2004. The quarter-cent sales tax increase was set up to provide additional revenue for police, fire and gang prevention. The problem is that it also guaranteed that ”annual funding of Police and Fire Department purposes ... may not be lower than the funding approved in the 2004-2005 budget, adjusted annually” for inflation.

This essentially mandated that, no matter how much the city budget shrank — as it did significantly during the economic downturn in 2008 — funding levels for public safety could not drop below 2004 levels, when funding was near its peak. In addition, the base funding levels are required to rise with inflation. Thankfully, the City Council has had the wisdom, in most years, to bypass these minimum funding levels each year, which it can do with the approval of at least six council members. But that ended in 2014 when the council, because of the baseline mandate, gave the Police Department an extra $1.4 million despite the fact that other departments, such as parks, had a clearer need for the funds.

Overall, the portion of the city’s general fund that goes to police, fire and gang prevention, not including the Measure O funds, climbed from 53 percent to 58.4 percent in recent years. And it is expected to continue to climb if Measure O is not fixed.

The patch proposed by the city is not perfect, but it stops the bleeding. The new Measure O would lock in public safety funding at the level of this year’s budget — at 58.4 percent. Having the baseline funding levels set as percentages and not actual numbers ensures funding will rise and fall with the other city departments and not have the recession-proof protections that were included with the 2004 version of the measure. Either way, the City Council would still have the option of increasing public safety budgets, or bypassing baseline requirements, if it so chooses.

We would have preferred if the council have put the fix for Measure O on the ballot first and, once that was approved, then sought an extension of the Measure P quarter-cent sales tax. But we are impressed that, despite the divisions over these issues, the City Council was unanimous in its support of putting both of these measures on the ballot. And we are also persuaded that, eventually, both are needed. And Santa Rosa voters shouldn’t miss this opportunity to put both of these funding questions in the past and move on. The Press Democrat recommends a yes vote on Measure O and Measure N.