“We have come a long way!”

That statement is printed at the bottom of a slide from a “trial budget” presentation delivered Tuesday night by Santa Ana City Manager David Cavazos, which showed how the city went from a massive deficit in 2009 to a balanced and seemingly healthy budget heading into next fiscal year.

Come a long way indeed.

The tentative $222.2 million spending plan showed increases in several categories, including the hiring of seven additional police officers, funding for city events, extended library hours and a master plan for the city zoo.

It also includes: information technology investments; a planned “employee pension rate stability reserve;” the establishment of an internal audit program; a “safe mobility program;” catching up on deferred maintenance at parks; the Southwest Senior Center; the replacement of a roof at the corporate yard; and a cost of living increase for city employees.

It represents a financial reality that City Council members aren’t used to.

“Since we came on in ‘06 and ‘07 I think the only thing we’ve known is how to lay people off, how to cut services and how to remain solvent,” Councilman Vincent Sarmiento said at Tuesday night’s council study session on the coming budget. “To be here now is certainly a very odd thing.”

There isn’t a lot of detail yet, with Cavazos’ trial budget being more of a big picture view. But city leaders plan on taking their budget priorities to a series of community budget meetings for input from residents in shaping what the final budget looks like. The council is expected to vote on a final budget on June 2.

“Now’s the time to show up, because the input will make a difference,” Cavazos said.

Planning the budget in such a public manner and months in advance marks a dramatic change in City Hall culture that began when the council majority adopted a sunshine ordinance intended to increase government transparency and encourage community participation.

While the sunshine ordinance was approved in 2012, city leaders spent the following years overseeing the city’s financial recovery, building up reserves, calibrating a multi-year budget forecast and crafting a strategic plan that serves as the long-term vision for the city.

With all that accomplished, this next fiscal year is arguably the first time council members and residents will have a significant measure of flexibility in setting funding priorities for city services.

There’s been skepticism along the way, specifically with public finance experts questioning some of the techniques Cavazos uses in his budget forecasts.

Also, Councilwoman Michele Martinez has been pushing for more accountability and had pointed questions about staffing for certain positions. At Tuesday’s meeting she asked Cavazos to put together a list of items in the strategic plan that haven’t yet been funded so council members and residents have a better understanding of the alternatives.

But most council members expressed satisfaction, and compared their current situation to the grim reality they were facing a few years ago, when they were seriously considering filing for municipal bankruptcy.

“It’s a good place to be where we are today,” said Councilman David Benavides. “It’s a good day in the city.”

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

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