RICHMOND -- Facing a deficit of more than $7 million and with budget cuts imminent, the City Council on Tuesday turned back an attempt to slash the budget for its novel public financing law.
The council voted 5-2 to protect its election-financing program, which provides up to $25,000 in taxpayer funds to match money raised by candidates for council and mayoral seats.
"The implication (by opponents) is that this is some feel-good luxury, and it's not," said Councilman Jim Rogers, who led the effort to establish the law in 2008. "Making for fairer elections is money well worth it."
Richmond is one of six cities in California that provides public financing for candidates for local office, along with Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento and San Francisco, according to the Center for Governmental Studies. Supporters say it is particularly important in a city where big corporate money pours into politics, most recently from Chevron, which operates a major refinery in the city, and from the soda industry, which used millions to beat back an attempt to tax sugary beverages in 2012.
"I'm proud that this council, unlike almost any other elected body in the country, voted for this," Rogers said. "We did it because it's the right thing to do."
But opponents contend that the city cannot afford the program, noting that City Manager Bill Lindsay has asked all city departments to craft plans to cut 17 percent from all budgets to help close the yawning budget deficit.
"I love (the law), except for right now," said Councilman Corky Boozé. "We can't afford political welfare."
The council declined to eliminate the matching funds program by a 5-2 vote, with Boozé and Nat Bates dissenting.
Lindsay said the shortfall in the city's nearly $140 million general fund budget will need to be reckoned with regardless of the fate of election financing.
"It's not going to be easy," Lindsay said. "The council has some really tough choices to make."
City Clerk Diane Holmes said the program has cost the city about $500,000 since 2008, including $245,000 in 2010. With four council seats and the mayor's seat up for election in November, more than a dozen candidates are expected to be in the running this year. If 10 raised $25,000 to get the matching funds, the cost could be $250,000.
But supporters said the costs are worth it.
"We could save money by getting rid of elections altogether," said Mike Parker, who is running for mayor. "We want democracy to make rules in this country, and democracy has certain costs."
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/sfbaynewsrogers.