This story has been updated.
A divided Santa Ana City Council on Tuesday voted to cancel a program that would have issued $500,000 in grants for local youth programs, a move that sparked outrage among community members who said the programs would help prevent violence, gangs and crime.
The effort, called the Community Enhancement Program, would have funded education, sports, arts, and health programs offering a range of activities from after-school tutoring and college preparation to boxing and dance classes.
The grant process was approved by the City Council in September, and 56 nonprofit groups applied. A panel ranked them and in December city staff recommended funding the top eight or nine proposals.
But before it could be voted on, new City Council members, who had been heavily backed by the police union during the November election, were sworn in. The union, which spent about $400,000 on the election, has called for investing more in police in order to improve public safety amid rising crime in the city.
The new council members delayed the item until Tuesday’s meeting, where it went down on a 4-2 vote. The four-vote majority included councilmen Jose Solorio, Juan Villegas, Mayor Miguel Pulido and Councilwoman Michele Martinez.
Councilmen Sal Tinajero and Vicente Sarmiento voted to move forward with the grant program, while Councilman David Benavides had to abstain, because he is the executive director of KidWorks, one of the organizations that would have received a grant.
A total of 23 members of the public spoke to the council before the vote, all urging them to approve the grants.
Several middle and high school students said existing programs help them have a sense of purpose, and that expanding the programs will help youth stay out of trouble.
“It gives me a purpose to have a goal around my community because I want to make it better,” said Marcos Rodriguez, a teenager involved at KidWorks, which was looking to expand its after-school programs through a grant.
“It helps other youth have a safe place to be…[otherwise] they would be out on the streets looking for something to do or just causing trouble.”
Those who voted to kill the grant program defended their votes by either questioning whether there really is money in the budget for the grants, or pointing to a need to hire more police officers.
Solorio emphasized that there are 95 vacant positions in the city’s police department. And despite “numerous promises” to hire more officers and claims that the department was growing, he said, the city “only hired one [net] cop” in the past three years.
Solorio proposed instead having the nonprofit grants be funded by the federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program. Pulido agreed.
The federal program, however, is a fixed pot of money, meaning cuts would likely have to be made elsewhere in the city’s CDBG funding in order to accommodate the nonprofit grants.
City staff, meanwhile, explained that the money they proposed for the nonprofit grants is already in the bank, and resulted from savings on city contracts and projects that came in under budget over the past few years.
Villegas, who like Solorio and Pulido was elected with the strong backing of the police union, also said he wanted to hold off on the nonprofit grants, questioning whether the funding source was “real.”
Their positions sparked anger in the audience, with shouts of “invest in the community!” and “you’re a tool!”
Martinez argued that the city doesn’t know what its true ability is to fund the programs. “We don’t really know where we’re at financially,” she said.
Tinajero, who has railed against the police union in recent months, said Solorio, Villegas, and Pulido were really just trying to redirect that money to police, whose union backed them in the election.
“You know what this is about? ‘Let’s give the money to the po-po!’ ” Tinajero said, using a slang term for police. “They’re not gonna question that!”
The city has had to pay out over $6 million on excessive force cases in the last two years, Tinajero added. He suggested that further raises for police be tied to officers changing their behavior to cut excessive force payments in half.
Sarmiento said that while he agrees there should be more officers on the street, the nonprofit grants were also important for public safety.
“Public safety isn’t just by putting officers on the street. Public safety is keeping kids busy,” Sarmiento said, to loud applause from the audience.
He noted that the council approved $3 million for technology consultants earlier in the evening.
“Seven consultants are $3 million richer tonight. But we can’t spent $500,000 on our children? That just…doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” Sarmiento said.
He proposed reducing one consultant and directing those savings to the nonprofit grants, to no avail.
Supporters of the nonprofits continued to vent their disappointment after the meeting.
Local activist Madeleine Spencer pointed out that $500,000 would only put three new police officers on the streets. The median total compensation for a Santa Ana police officer is just over $200,000, according to city data that includes salary, overtime and benefits.
“Meanwhile these [nonprofit] grants can take thousands of youth off the streets by giving them constructive programming, true community safety while at the same time building community, bringing joy and wellbeing to a greater number of residents as a whole,” Spencer wrote in an email to reporters.
Benavides grew visibly upset at the end of the meeting, pointing to Pulido, Solorio and Villegas’ assertions that they support public safety.
“If public safety is truly what’s so important to us, then why would we not invest in our young people?” Benavides said. “The hypocrisy on this dais is so blatant, it’s embarrassing.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.