RICHMOND -- Growing wary of the city's financial health, City Council members this week put the brakes on some spending projects ahead of 2013-14 budget negotiations scheduled for next month.

"We've been kicking the can down the road," City Councilman Nat Bates said. "We have an expenditure problem, and we are going to have to come to terms with that."

Bates raised the specter of a fiscal crunch during Tuesday's council meeting. He said he had recently spoken with Finance Director James Goins and that Goins anticipated a nearly $20 million General Fund deficit based on department budget requests and projected revenues.

After Bates' remarks, Councilman Jim Rogers rescinded an agenda item that called for restoring $2.3 million to the city's street repair budget pending the sale of a city-owned apartment complex. The council deferred action on several other spending measures as well.

Richmond faces budget deficits widening through 2016, according to a five-year projection released by the Finance Department in September.

But the report projected the 2012-13 fiscal year as balanced, with $136 million in revenues and expenditures, widening to a $10 million-plus deficit by 2015-16. Bates said Tuesday the gap appears to have opened much faster, and he said it was the result of profligate spending by the council coupled with unfunded liabilities for retired workers.

"This council just spends money and has no idea what it's doing," Bates said.

Goins did not respond to calls and emails requesting comment as of Wednesday afternoon. As of late last year, City Manager Bill Lindsay said the city had reserves of about $10 million.

Lindsay said Wednesay it was too early to say where cuts might come. "It's not who is going to suffer but who is not going to enhance their programs as much as they'd like," he said. "It's not easy for any city to balance their budget in this economy."

Councilman Tom Butt said Wednesday he is skeptical of Bates' budget assertions but that he would hold off judgment until he got more information in the coming weeks.

"That $20 million in the red figure, I've never heard that before," Butt said.

Rogers said Richmond has done a good job of rebuilding its finances since the fiscal crisis of 2004, when the city had to lay off workers to balance the budget.

"Rather than kicking the can down the road, we bit the bullet and made the hard choices," Rogers said. "We've been moving in the right direction."

The heads of the city's most expensive departments said they were cautiously optimistic that the coming budget could spare cuts to public safety.

"The (budget) statements made at the council meeting were new news for everyone," fire Chief Michael Banks said. "The situation seems pretty fluid right now, but we have faced tight budgets for years, so we're prepared."

Banks said he would request an increase of more than $1 million to his department's $26 million annual budget, in part to fund seven new fire and administrative positions.

Police Chief Chris Magnus said Wednesday he is "confident that the council views public safety as a top priority and will continue to fund it at adequate levels."

Bates said the reality is there will be cuts to the budget in the next year. He mentioned that the policy of providing high-level administrators privileges to drive city cars to and from work could be a place to find savings.

An investigation earlier this year revealed that Human Resources Director Leslie Knight misused city funds by driving a city car and collecting a $400-per-month allowance to drive her own car.

"We have too many attorneys, for starters," Bates said. "But we have to look at everything -- at library, parks, public works -- nothing is a sacred cow. I love our police, but there is some fat over there, too."

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 or rrogers@bayareanewsgroup.com and follow Twitter.com/roberthrogers.