San Jose: Budgeting for Disaster

By Ed Rast

San Jose‘s Operating Budget will mark its eighth consecutive year of budget deficits — in both good and bad economic times — when the 2009-10 version is approved today by the City Council.

A ongoing national recession stands to reduce sales taxes and other revenues, making our operating deficit even worse than the $73 million shortfall we already face. But we would be facing deficits without the current malaise because San Jose does not generate sufficient revenue to fund the services necessitated by its growing population, which just last month crested one million.

California cities receive very low percentages of property taxes and sales taxes, which get funneled up to Sacramento. They depend instead on local sales taxes, fees, fines, assessments, and assorted other revenue to pay for city services.

So, where exactly does San Jose get its money? To get an idea, have a look at this document, available on the City website. While you have that open, have a glance at this to see where our money is directed.

In recent years, a wide variety of numbers have been thrown around when it comes to San Jose’s public safety budget. When reading the city budget documents, one begins to understand the confusion:

Public safety (police, fire, and emergency services) accounts for $445,256,362 or 64% of our proposed $698,020,948 General Fund Budget but only 38% or $446,068,053 of the proposed $1,160,988,879 All Funds Operating Budget.

An average American city our size spends half of its operating budget on public safety. Looking only at the general fund budget, you’d think we were over-funding public safety. But seen in the greater context of the all funds budget, public safety is drastically under-funded in San Jose.

We need more revenue from sources outside the general fund to fully support essential city services like public safety. In other words, our City Administration needs to start thinking outside the box.

Public safety is said to be he highest budget priority of our residents and city leaders, but we will continue to see year after year of staff and budget reductions until the City Council clearly defines “essential city services” and funds those services to meet national standards of performance.