California Firefighter Union's Ideas Rile Richmond City Council

The Richmond City Council blasted two ballot initiatives drafted by the city's firefighter union that would require officials to set aside 54 percent of the general fund for public safety, and curtail the authority of the city manager and the council to make spending decisions.

"To me, it's a very scary prospect that we would be locked in," said Councilman Jim Rogers, who encouraged his colleagues Tuesday night to develop an alternative that could work for public safety without placing a stranglehold on the council and staff.

The so-called Public Safety Funding Amendment would guarantee money for police and fire services and lock in the current level of support services, facilities, supplies and equipment. Another charter amendment would commit 4 percent of the general fund to a library district and 6 percent to a parks and recreation district.

Interim City Attorney Everett Jenkins said the language of the initiatives passed legal muster. Supporters must now circulate the amendments to get 6,000 signatures from registered city voters by July to qualify the measures for the November ballot.

Given the short time frame, residents likely would not cast votes on them until the March ballot, said fire Capt. Jim Russey, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local No. 188.

"If (council members) haven't listened to the citizens of Richmond, we certainly have," Russey said. "They say it will tie their hands, but it really doesn't. It just gives police and fire enough to make sure they're funded. It also gives (the city) the tools to raise money for other departments."

Charter amendments require a simple majority vote of the electorate.

Councilwoman Maria Viramontes said she would campaign aggressively against the charter amendments if they qualify for the November ballot.

"The first meeting of the City Council, we will have to vote to overturn the ballot initiative (because) the budget we're about to pass will not accommodate that," she said. "Not in your wildest dreams.

"We failed on the job of catching a budget deficit, and people are angry and they want change, but this is not a time to be unfocused," she said. "In our current crisis, you see how important flexibility is."

That lack of spending flexibility could frighten off bond-ratings agencies, Councilman Rogers said.

Most cities are moving toward performance-based budgeting, which would require the city to evaluate the efficiency of its various departments, said Councilwoman Mindell Penn.

That idea prompted an angry retort by Vice Mayor Richard Griffin, who said the city hasn't sized up department performance "in 20 years" and is unlikely to alter its practice of zero-based budgeting.

Now, departments receive a set amount of money at the start of the fiscal year, and must give back what remains at the year's end. At that point, each begins again at zero.

Some fear the measures will spell ballot chaos in November: The council approved Tuesday night a contract for pollsters to tap the voter mood on any number of tax measures.

Keep Richmond Safe last teamed up with Sacramento political consultant Leo McElroy on Measure J, the 2002 utility user tax increase used to pay for enhanced retirement benefits.