Dozens of Santa Ana youths Thursday evening got a lesson from city officials on the budget process and then grilled those same officials on the city's budget priorities.
The questions from the crowd gathered at the Latino Health Access headquarters on West Fourth Street focused primarily on the city's public safety spending and how, from the perspective of many youths, it is out of step with the needs of the community.
Zuleyma Valera, an 18-year-old freshman at Cal State Fullerton, crystallized the crowd's sentiment with her pointed questions of the officials, who included City Councilmen Vincent Sarmiento and Roman Reyna and staff from the city's Finance Department.
She asked why the Police Department needs $104 million — more than half the city's budget — to operate. Police officers haven't established constructive relationships with residents of her neighborhood, she said, which has led her to fear the police more than gangs.
“Shouldn't priorities shift?” she asked.
The answer from Sarmiento was, "You're absolutely right."
That answer, which was echoed by Reyna and the Finance Department officials, might come as a surprise to longtime observers of Santa Ana City Hall, who have become accustomed to years of unilateral decision-making by Mayor Miguel Pulido and a small group of high-level staffers, including former Police Chief Paul Walters.
But perhaps those who since last year have paid close attention to the so-called "Santa Ana Spring" movement — seen by many as a response to Pulido's rule — may not have been so surprised.
Among the changes is a revamping of the city's budget process, mostly in response to the city's brush with bankruptcy last year. The new process includes the adoption of a two-year budget and a requirement to approve a "truly balanced" budget so that every dollar spent is backed by a dollar of revenue.
The budget must be passed by the end of the fiscal year, June 30.
Sarmiento said that in many ways the Police Department is "outdated" and that he wants to see the public safety budget reduced to between 40 and 50 percent of the budget, which would be more in line with spending in other cities.
“We need to revisit the city in how we monitor it, how we govern it and how we police it,” Sarmiento said. “I think we're more law-abiding than people give us credit for.”
Added Assistant Finance Director Robert Cortez: “We are working through this. Change is coming.”
Valera pushed on, asking whether Sarmiento thought that the number of police officers patrolling the streets caused the drop in crime or that city residents have simply become more law-abiding on their own. The question is relevant because city budgets show that the number of police officers has declined over the years, yet crime has continued to drop.
“It's both,” Sarmiento said.
Other youths at the forum, which was sponsored by Latino Health Access, KidWorks and Voice of OC, asked related questions about dedicating resources to a better community dialogue between police and residents and spending more on after-school programs.
Responding to questions about after-school programs, Reyna said: "Right now we have a youth-oriented City Council. Its difficult to do it overnight, but that's what I'm an advocate for."
Another particularly sticky issue was the city's jail. Youths asked whether officials are considering canceling the city's contract with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement — whereby the city is paid for jailing undocumented immigrants — and whether the jail can be converted to some other use.
Cortez said the city is considering all options, including canceling the ICE contract, outsourcing the jail and even getting out of the jail business altogether. The city's financial consultant, Management Partners, is analyzing the jail's finances and operations, he said.
Another youth asked whether the city could do something to keep youths from leaving the city when they mature into adulthood.
“If you come up with something to keep them here, I'm all ears,” Reyna said.
City officials said they are considering a branding campaign for the city that would improve its image as crime-ridden, an image often perpetuated by the media. But they also challenged the city's youths to return to the city after college and serve the community that raised them.
Cortez, who said he made a decision to return to the city after attending USC, said that “ultimately, it's upon the youth.”