All of the Santa Ana City Council candidates who showed up for an election forum Tuesday night agreed that the city needs to expand positive opportunities for youth – including more open space, after-school programs, job training, internships, and tutoring.
With nearly half of its residents under 20 years old, the city is one of the youngest in the nation. Yet by many key measures, children in Santa Ana’s low-income, densely populated neighborhoods have far fewer opportunities than their peers in nearby cities.
But when it comes to the question of how expanded programs should be paid for, the candidates attending the forum at the downtown headquarters of Latino Health Access had very different opinions.
Some, like mayoral candidate Ben Vazquez, want to see part of the city’s police spending, which is 53 percent of the general fund budget, be shifted to investing in programs aimed at engaging young people and keeping them out of trouble.
“We’re paying tons of money for safety that’s not working,” Vazquez said. “When you invest in youth, when you invest in hope, that is safety.”
Candidates Ana Urzua Alcaraz, Roman Reyna, and Patrick Yrarrazaval-Correa also agreed about shifting some of the police budget to youth programs.
“We can’t arrest our way to a safe environment,” Reyna said. “We have to provide our young people with alternatives, and that’s how we break” the cycle.
Other candidates — particularly Jose Solorio and Juan Villegas, who are endorsed by the city’s police union – said the police department needs more resources given recent growth in violent crime.
“Right now currently we have a high crime rate going on. There’s a lot of violence,” said Villegas, who works as a sheriff’s special officer.
He added that while he believes in prevention programs and community policing, “we could have a whole bunch of programs” and the city will still have kids who commit crimes.
Solorio said the police department is understaffed, adding that when a resident calls 911 for police assistance, “we need them to respond” and “respond quickly.”
He promised to seek outside grants for youth programs, and to return to the activist groups for a budget workshop if he’s elected.
“I want to come back to the same room, if I’m invited back, to walk through the budget,” Solorio said.
Mayor Miguel Pulido is also backed by the police union and supports devoting all of the city’s budget surpluses to the police department. He came to Tuesday’s forum, held at Latino Health Access, but left before the mayoral candidates discussion started.
David De Leon, the Ward 3 council candidate who is endorsed by most of the City Council, also didn’t attend. And Councilman Vicente Sarmiento attended but left before the budget shift questions were asked.
Urzua Alcaraz, a community activist who works for the Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities coalition, went furthest in calling for up to 5 percent (or $6 million) of the police budget to be shifted to prevention programs. She didn’t provide specifics regarding where she would cut the department’s budget.
Yrarrazaval-Correa, however, said he would negotiate to reduce city pension costs for new officers.
“At some point they will be the entire city budget,” Yrarrazaval-Correa said of the pension liabilities. “The only way we’re going to get this monkey off our back” is through negotiations, he said.
Reyna, meanwhile, noted that he was the only council member this year to vote against Pulido’s proposal to use the city’s entire budget surplus for police.
The need to create more open space was another key issue brought up at the forum, which was moderated by Voice of OC Publisher Norberto Santana Jr. and featured questions from community activists involved with the Building Healthy Communities coalition.
Santa Ana is one of the most park-poor cities in the nation, and all of the candidates agreed on the need to find creative ways to open up more park space.
The most immediate opportunity to provide more open space for kids is at local public schools, which have large yards that that are closed on evenings and weekends.
For years, city and Santa Ana Unified School District leaders have emphasized the need to have more joint-use agreements to make that happen. But there were few answers Tuesday about why promises by council candidates in previous elections regarding joint-use agreements haven’t materialized.
“We’ve only been able to have a few discussions with the district,” Sarmiento said.
When pressed by questioners, Sarmiento suggested the city and school district still have points of disagreement, and that there’s not enough room in the budget for all schools to have joint-use.
Activists said after the forum that they plan to track the city’s spending priorities and advocate for youth opportunities during the upcoming budgeting process.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].