The City of Santa Rosa voted on Tuesday evening, June 30, 2020, to defer ALL Public Works Projects due to Covid-19 caused budget constraints. link
The City explained that the $17 million reserve fund was drawn down to just over $1 million due to the fires in the past three years and the continued economic problems posted by the Covid-19 pandemic. In order to ease the Council angst over the lack of reserves, the City Council and staff crafted a list of about $11 million in public works projects to postpone until some future date where their finances look better.
The City already earmarked some $5 million that can be saved by “keeping dozens of city positions vacant and increasing scrutiny on its hiring process”.
Although the City acknowledged some anticipated relief should come from a PG & E payment of some $90 million which is part of the settlement negotiated from the 2017 and 2018 wildfires, the date and final amount the City might get from that settlement is uncertain. The relief could change the City budget scenario very quickly, so the City is revisiting their budget in September 2020.
What does all this mean for ECA Members? In the short term, very little. Some of the deferred projects include the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens across the street from Julliard Park, partial funding of a fire station in Fountaingrove, work on the Rincon Valley and Northwest library branches and other projects. Luckily, much of the infrastructure work that our members depend upon is funded with very few general fund dollars and funding comes from other sources such as gas tax revenue. Even with that bit of good fortune, I am very concerned about the trend that the City of SR has demonstrated.
While I admit the homeless problem is probably too much of a social problem for the City of SR to “solve”, the City has spent a great deal of money funding the encampments and motel rooms they needed to comply with the letter of the law prior to cleaning out the temporary encampments under Highway 101 and the Joe Rodota trail. Semi-permanent “fixes” include the tent city at Finley Park (reported to be costing the City an estimated $137,000/month for 33 occupants, and the Los Guillicos tiny hut community that the County and grants helped pay for. The recent cleanup under the Highway 101 overpass and the Joe Rodota trail cost the City of Santa Rosa millions of dollars to clean up.
Does anyone believe the City is done spending money on the social ills caused by the homeless? Not by a long shot. The preferred method of funding those unanticipated extra costs seems to be Public Works project deferral. That is not a healthy solution. We need Public Works projects to move forward to maintain existing facilities, that if those projects are postponed, will lead to even greater bills down the road.
So, what is the solution?
The cost of funding Public Safety is a huge part of the City budget. Without pension reform, that cost will continue to increase over time. There are not a lot of other sources to save dollars for the City. I am a strong supporter of law enforcement and fire services, so I am not a fan of the current concept we keep hearing about “defunding” the police. However, I could be in favor of a collaborative effort to “defund” the lucrative publicly guaranteed and paid for pensions for public safety. I do not know how to get this done without messing up the police and fire guys and gals that hired on based upon those pension formulas. But I am certain of one thing-the City is going to have to do more than just “not fill vacant positions” to deal with the structural budget problems they currently have. And the City cannot rely on another one time “bailout’ from the Feds or PG & E in the future.
This is not a problem unique to the City of Santa Rosa. In a recent article in the Washington Post, over 700 Municipalities are postponing or deferring their Public Works Projects to meet their budget demands Covid-19 (or poor planning?) have left them with. link
If this is the way of the future of balancing budgets on the backs of our firms, we need to work with Cities, Counties and others to find a different way to maintain our infrastructure projects being funded.
That’s All Folks