Just months after voters approved a one-cent sales tax increase, the Westminster City Council is looking to spend some of that new money on police, code enforcement, outreach and case management services in an effort to reduce the number of homeless people on the street.
Last month council members unanimously approved a proposal by Councilman Tyler Diep and Mayor Tri Ta to hire two new police officers dedicated to homeless outreach.
Westminster is one of several Orange County cities wrestling with serious homeless issues. At least 1,722 homeless children, mostly motel families, live within the Westminster School District boundaries, and city staff estimate at least 50 chronically homeless individuals call Westminster home.
At their meeting Wednesday, the city council will consider a request by Councilman Sergio Contreras to hire two part-time code enforcement officers and approve a $45,000, six-month pilot agreement with City Net, a nonprofit that provides homeless outreach services in Anaheim, Costa Mesa, Stanton and other cities.
“I get numerous calls from residents, property managers of commercial centers, about the constant issue they have to deal with in terms of homeless loitering,” Diep said at a January 28 council meeting. “I think it’s time we begin to really dedicate resources to it.”
If their agreement is approved, City Net will conduct a citywide census aimed at identifying the city’s needs; do weekly outreach with the police department, coordinate efforts of faith and community groups, and establish a “Hope Fund” to pay for the cost of transitioning people into housing.
The program would add to other efforts to combat homelessness by Westminster, a city of 92,000 that has struggled under a growing budget deficit since 2012, when Gov. Jerry Brown eliminated redevelopment agencies statewide and a major source of funding for the city.
The city currently is piloting its own five-year rapid rehousing program, paid for by one-time affordable housing funds, aimed at helping homeless people on the street.
The $250,000 per year program pays for half the salary of a police officer dedicated to homeless prevention and provides rent subsidies, housing vouchers, temporary motel stays, and assistance with apartment deposits.
At least 100 clients, including families and individuals, have been given some form of housing since the program’s start, according to Housing Coordinator Tami Piscotty.
Deputy Police Chief Tim Vu told the council at a February 8 meeting the department often responds to calls from the public about homeless individuals who have not committed a crime or crimes that would justify an arrest.
“What the public sees is we respond to a call, talk to them for fifteen minutes, and then we leave,” Vu said. “The challenge is the officer has to clear that call and go do something else…having two dedicated officers will allow us to have a focused approach to this issue.”
In addition to working to address homelessness, one of the two new officers will also serve as a school resource officer who does outreach to youth who are exposed to crime at an early age.
Although both Diep’s and Contreras’ proposals will be paid for in their first year by one-time funds, if they continue they will account for $360,000 in new spending each coming year.
It would cost about $230,000 for the salary and benefits of two new police officers, $40,000 for two part-time code enforcement officers, and $90,000 for a year-long agreement with City Net.
City officials are banking on an estimated $13 million in new revenue from Measure SS, a one-cent sales tax increase that voters approved in November to pay for these new initiatives and to pull the city out of its budget crisis.
With its structural deficit consistently growing and without new revenue, the city would likely run out of funds by the 2018-19 fiscal year, according to city staff.
Proponents of the sales tax initiative billed it as a necessary evil to save the city from a budget crisis that could ultimately result in bankruptcy.
Diep, who opposed the sales tax measure, argued at the time that the city should consider $3 million in budget cuts, including cutting back on employees, before even contemplating a sales tax increase, although he also said public safety should be off-limits.
The city won’t see the effect of the sales tax increase until July 1, the start of the next fiscal year.
Diep noted that advocates of Measure SS routinely said public safety would suffer without a sales tax increase.
“I know the money hasn’t come in yet, which is why this calls for the item to be in operation on [June 30],” Diep said. ”In a way it’s to fulfill a pledge that those advocating for the passage of Measure SS have committed ourselves to.”
At a February 8 meeting, Councilwoman Kimberly Ho expressed frustration about the lack of detail in Contreras’ proposal and why it did not include information about other organizations aside from City Net. She also questioned whether council members had a long-term plan to address homelessness.
“If you throw $7,500 a month at it, and you’re not solving a problem, then you really wasted six months,” said Ho, who was elected to the City Council in November and joins Diep and Ta to form a conservative voting bloc.
Contreras said the council should act now, rather than “analyze or overanalyze” the situation.
“If we had that solution I think we would have solved homelessness by now,” Contreras said.
“That’s the reason why I said we’re not ready to make the decision with City Net,” said Ho.
Correction: A previous version of this story said the city contracts with the Coast to Coast Foundation using asset forfeiture funds. The city considered the contract, but decided not to move forward with it. Voice of OC regrets the error.
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