Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson sets agenda on spending

By the Editorial Board

March 18, 2015 05:00 PM

Mayor Kevin Johnson speaks in February at the formal launch of the Greater Sacramento Area Economic Council, which is on his 16-page list of budget priorities. Randall Benton rbenton@sacbee.com
Mayor Kevin Johnson speaks in February at the formal launch of the Greater Sacramento Area Economic Council, which is on his 16-page list of budget priorities. Randall Benton rbenton@sacbee.com

Although Sacramento voters didn’t give him “strong mayor” powers last year, Kevin Johnson is maneuvering to play a far bigger role in deciding how City Hall spends your money.

So far, the City Council is on board, giving positive reviews Tuesday night to Johnson’s list of budget priorities. We, too, think many of his ideas have merit, including ones to create jobs, strengthen public safety and invest in neighborhoods too often left behind.

To win support for this retooled budget process, he argues that it gives elected officials the chance to make sure that spending priorities reflect what their constituents want. It’s not written in stone, however, that they’ll end up in the budget the council adopts in June.

Johnson was deeply disappointed when voters overwhelmingly rejected the “strong mayor” measure last November. A major provision was that the mayor – not the city manager – would submit a budget. With the measure’s defeat, City Manager John Shirey is still scheduled to submit his proposed budget on April 24.

But in some important ways, Johnson has beaten him to the punch.

As announced in his State of the City speech in January, the mayor started with a community workshop Feb. 21, went through a poll of city residents and several council workshops and ended with the 16-page budget message on Tuesday night’s agenda. At Johnson’s request, the council approved the spending priorities and sent them to Shirey.

For his part, Shirey says while all the priority items are worthy, the city can’t afford them all. It faces major deficits, especially when the Measure U sales tax ends in 2019, so the city still needs to be careful and prudent.

“As we do every year, we will do our best to accommodate council and community needs and wants,” he said in an email.

Still, Shirey will have to provide a good explanation why a priority item didn’t make the cut.

For example, Johnson wants to fund positions in the Police Department to increase diversity and to move toward a benchmark of 2 officers per 1,000 residents in 20 years. He also wants $1.2 million for an anti-gang plan drafted by a task force he appointed.

The mayor says the city should fund feasibility studies of a soccer stadium in the downtown railyard and a new performing arts center. He wants city staffers to study how to create an “innovation district” in the railyard; to look at how to add 10,000 housing units in the central city during the next decade; and to support an income-inequality task force he plans to launch.

Johnson has complained that his agenda has been stymied because he has so little control over the city’s purse strings. It’s looking like he’s well on his way to fixing that this year, even without “strong mayor.”