Santa Ana Council Votes to Devote Entire Budget Surplus to Police

Members of the Santa Ana City Council said Tuesday that the planned expansion of the city’s police force by 40 officers this year isn’t enough, and voted to devote the city’s entire budget surplus to accelerate the hiring of more police.

The police force currently stands at 308 officers, according to city officials, who have been planning on growing that by 40 officers this calendar year and a total of about 100 over the next three years.

On Tuesday night, the City Council opted to grow it even more.

Councilman Vincent Sarmiento argued that the department is vastly understaffed for this city of 335,000 residents, with less officers on the streets than decades ago when Santa Ana’s population was far smaller.

“Shame on us” for not funding the police department more, Sarmiento said.

The surplus is the city’s extra money left over at the end of the fiscal year, on June 30.

The 2016-17 budget, which the council adopted this month, calls for the funding of 16 more officer positions than last fiscal year. However, Police Chief Carlos Rojas said the city has up to 80 vacant sworn officer positions. This is what has council members alarmed, and the planned hiring would attempt to fill those positions.

Furthermore, the council last night approved a $150,000 contract with Los Angeles-based Sensis Agency to help the city’s recruiting efforts by marketing the vacant officer positions.

This year, the surplus is projected to be between $1.5 million and $2 million and the byproduct of expenses being much lower than what was budgeted. The exact amount isn’t expected to be known until September.

Earlier this month, the council approved their 2016-17 fiscal year budget, which includes $229 million in general fund spending and includes funding for more police officers, park improvements, and extended hours for community centers, among other things.

On Tuesday, Sarmiento and Mayor Miguel Pulido pushed for finding money to speed along the process of hiring officers, with Pulido suggesting the city use its budget surplus and its $3.8-million rainy-day reserve fund, known as the “economic uncertainty fund.”

“I want to make sure” you have more money, Pulido told the police chief, Carlos Rojas.
But use of the rainy-day fund got significant pushback from some council members, as well as a warning from City Manager David Cavazos, who said the reserve is “really important” for absorbing declining revenues in a downtown and prevent hiring freezes.

Councilwoman Angelica Amezcua also questioned how the surplus can fund officers in the long term.

Cavazos called that an “excellent point,” adding that “the best time to save money is when you have it.”

Santa Ana was pushed to the brink of bankruptcy in 2011, amid a $30 million budget deficit driven largely by growing police and fire department costs. The city underwent major reforms to pull itself out of that fiscal hole, including disbanding its fire department and outsourcing its work to the Orange County Fire Authority.

The city’s financial picture has turned around significantly since then, bolstered by growing tax revenues and greater restraints on spending.

Cavazos said the police department, whose budget has grown by $16 million in the past two years, already has the funding it would need to hire up to 80 officers in the next fiscal year. So no budget increases are needed in order to accelerate the hiring, he said.

That didn’t persuade the council, which voted 6-1 to devote the surplus to the police department. Councilman Roman Reyna voted against it, saying the council should be talking a more comprehensive approach that includes engaging young people with activities.

Community advocates have come to the council year after year to ask for more funding of parks, after-school programs, and health and wellness programs. None spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, at which the final budget approval was up for a vote.

The on-the-spot decision-making Tuesday left Councilwoman Michele Martinez wary.

“Here, again, we have no process for this so-called surplus,” Martinez said, questioning if there will even be a surplus. She ended up voting with her colleagues for devoting the surplus to police.

Councilman Sal Tinajero also suggested the city look at the impact to its pension obligations from hiring more officers, which often add long-term costs beyond current salaries and benefits.

Depending on how much the surplus ends up being, it could allow an extra 10 officers to be hired, on top of the 40 officer expansion this year and 100 over the next three years.

Pulido suggested that the surplus-funded officers be used to re-establish the department’s “strike force,” a SWAT team that focused largely on gang crime.

Rojas, the police chief, noted that the current issue with starting the team back up is they’d have to be pulled from patrol, which is where he gets the most complaints.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. He can be reached at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.