A Fiscal Awakening in Santa Ana?

In modern civic life, city residents are typically uninterested in the workings of their government until an issue at City Hall directly affects their backyards, like a development that puts more cars in their neighborhood or an unkempt house seen as a threat to property values.

But something could be happening in Santa Ana that might be arousing the public's collective consciousness.

Last week nearly 40 residents attended the city's budget outreach community meeting, designed to educate residents about the city budget, how it is approved and the general framework of municipal finances.

Compare this with June's City Council budget hearing. Nobody from the public spoke out about the issue, even though city leaders had just narrowly avoided filing for municipal bankruptcy by outsourcing the 128-year-old fire department.

Much of this new citizens engagement can be credited to a community organizing effort led by a coalition of activists known as Santa Ana Collaborative for Responsible Development (SACReD).

The group successfully pushed for the city's sunshine ordinance, which mandates measures for greater transparency at City Hall and requires budget outreach meetings.

SACReD members attended the meeting in force with a host of questions. Francisco Gutierrez, Santa Ana's director of finance, and Robert Cortez, assistant finance director, presided over the workshop and answered some of the questions concisely.

For example, local attorney and former mayoral candidate Alfredo Amezcua asked whether city officials had a clear sense of the amount of underground sales that occur in the city. Amezcua said he suspects that the city doesn't collect as much sales tax revenue as it could if all businesses operated aboveboard.

Gutierrez said that the city contracts with the state Franchise Tax Board to identify businesses operating without city business licenses. If a business has received income but hasn't gotten a license, city officials flag the business. “At that point we make sure they are contributing appropriately,” he said.

Other questions, however, got confused looks rather than answers.

Adriana Reza, a SACReD member and 22-year-old Cal State Fullerton student, asked how much the interim city manager is compensated.

Gutierrez and Cortez said they didn't know.

For the record, interim City Manager Kevin O'Rourke receives $22,083 monthly. He lives in Fairfierld, Calif., some 400 miles to the north, so he also gets up to $4,000 monthly as reimbursement for expenses the first 60 days of employment. After that, his travel reimbursement drops to a maximum of $2,700 monthly.

Local artist Sandra Pocha Pena Sarmiento asked whether the city receives tax revenue from its many medical marijuana dispensaries.

Although residents have complained about dispensaries operating in their neighborhoods and city officials have validated an initiative petition to allow dispensaries within city limits, Cortez said he wasn't aware of any such shops operating in the city.

Meanwhile, Nelson Alonso, who is a participant in Voice of OC's Youth Media Program, asked Gutierrez and Cortez what they were doing to include the city's youth in the budget process.

Gutierrez replied that city officials would likely conduct a meeting specifically for the youth to explain the budget.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the amount of reimbursable expenses that interim City Manager Kevin O'Rourke can claim each month.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek.

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