What to Do With Santa Ana’s Sudden Surplus?

Santa Ana City Hall. (Photo credit: LiberalOC)

It’s a situation that would have been unheard of just a few years ago -- the city of Santa Ana with millions in extra cash.

In 2011 and 2012, city leaders disbanded the century-old fire department and made a host of other cuts to stave off bankruptcy and close a $30-million budget hole.

Fast-forward to this year, and the city has more than $13 million in extra cash at its disposal thanks to an $11-million budget surplus and $2 million from selling property on Bristol St.

Now, residents, community activists, city staff and council members have the pleasant challenge of figuring out what to do with this cash infusion.

Two major proposals have emerged.

One, from City Manager David Cavazos, focuses on a host of requests from city departments – including new vehicles, repairs to tennis courts, a general plan update, police body cameras, IT upgrades, pension stability, and a skate park.

In addition to the $13.35 million in extra money, Cavazos says he also wants to use $3.8 million from the city’s “very healthy reserve” to improve the city’s train station, which the finance director says would bring in an extra $450,000 per year in rental income to the city.

(Click here to read the city manager’s proposal)

Meanwhile, a broad coalition of community groups, organized by the Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities collaborative, brought forward their own proposal at Tuesday night’s council meeting.

It divides up $8 million of the surplus, focusing on partnering on community projects.

Among the 17 recommendations: property for a community-run micro farm; grants for community centers that provide health, wellness, arts and culture programming; bike infrastructure improvements; a youth diversion program; a violence intervention worker; and enhancements to the city’s proposed storage facility for homeless peoples’ belongings.

(Click here to read the Building Healthy Communities proposal.)

Altogether, 17 people addressed council members Tuesday in support of various aspects of the advocates’ plan.

Abraham Medina, the director of Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color, emphasized the importance of the violence intervention, diversion and community conferencing proposals.

Violence intervention workers would be trained at local universities and respond to crises in the community, he said, with a goal of reducing future violence.

Ricarda Diaz, standing next to her two school-aged children, said working on a community gardening project has taught her family about healthier eating, while spending time together planting fruits and vegetables.

She asked that the council dedicate part of the surplus to setting aside a half-acre of land for a micro farm that’s run by local families.

Georgina Maldonado, executive director of the Community Health Initiative of Orange County, said that through the proposal, her group would be able to build on the roughly 1,000 uninsured people they’ve enrolled into health care plans over the last year.

“It is imperative we continue to do this work in Santa Ana,” Maldonado said, urging the council to support the Building Healthy Communities plan.

Vattana Peong of The Cambodian Family Center noted that Santa Ana is home to the largest Cambodian-American population in Orange County, with many community members struggling with traumas from Cambodia’s genocide in the 1970s. The proposal calls for providing “very important” mental health services to this population, he added.

Rosalina Vargas, who helped create the Green Heart Family Park and Community Center, noted that the center has been used for community forums with police and family-oriented programs.

She supported the advocates’ proposal that some of the surplus funds be used to support the center and places like it.

Several speakers also voiced support for the expanded homeless services, which would improve storage and sanitation services at the check-in center, and keep it open at times that are convenient for homeless people.

The center’s opening has been “delayed for months” and is “long overdue,” said advocate Dylan Thompson, echoing other speakers’ remarks.

The only council member who reacted Tuesday to the advocates was Michele Martinez, who expressed optimism that several of their requests will become a reality.

Martinez thanked the collaborative for advocating for public health and place-making, adding that she thinks many of the things they mentioned “really can happen.” At the same time, she emphasized that if the funds are used to start projects that require on-going costs, it will impact future city budgets.

“We only have one-time dollars here,” Martinez said.

Council members are scheduled to make their final decision about the money on Oct. 6. Approval requires a two-thirds vote from the council.

You can contact Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.