Hundreds of public comments about Santa Ana’s budget — many of them by phone and nearly all of them opposing increases to police spending — caused City Council members to push the rest of their public meeting to Thursday before making any first vote on the budget and getting to a discussion of a much-anticipated police oversight commission.
As protests continue across the U.S. and locally against police violence, so have public criticisms of Santa Ana law enforcement’s hefty diet of hundreds of millions of public tax dollars every year — getting much more money from the city compared to things like youth services, parks and libraries.
Following the public comments Tuesday night was a tense discussion about the city’s spending priorities in the early Wednesday morning hours among council members, where even the subject of delaying the rest of the meeting roiled debate.
Council members like Vicente Sarmiento have become increasingly more vocal about redirecting funding away from the police department, which is proposed to get $140 million from the city’s taxpayer general fund. That’s a $9 million increase from the $131 million it got during the previous budget cycle and maintains the police department as the largest slice of the city’s general fund spending.
Sarmiento himself last year voted for controversial police salary increases along with David Penaloza, Jose Solorio and Mayor Miguel Pulido — raises that drove the proposed increases to city spending on police in the proposed budget.
Still, the November mayoral candidate said the city “can’t ignore it any longer, which is that there’s an inherent imbalance in the way we fund services in our city.”
“When there is such a heavy, disproportionate investment in one department to the expense of others, we have to ask ourselves, is it fundamentally fair?” he said.
He pointed to other aspects of public safety in the budget like the libraries, parks and youth services — “just basic civic services were supposed to be providing … we have heard his discussion before … at some point we have to ask ourselves, has it rendered better results?”
The answer, according to dozens of residents who phoned in their public comments, is no.
Resident Indigo Vu posed a question to those in the city who fear any “defunding” of the police would result in more crime: “Why are people incentivized to commit crimes?” They then pointed to the other areas of the budget with appreciably less money going into them from the general fund.
“People commit crimes when needs are not being met,” they said, calling the police “by and large, a reactionary system that does nothing to prevent crime” and concluding that residents “have been perennially bled of their budget.”
Community leaders like Hilda Ortiz of Latino Health Access, former city employee and past council candidate Manny Escamilla, recently-recalled Republican councilwoman Ceci Iglesias, and Hairo Cortes, executive director of Chispa OC, made the same pleas.
“Today is a moment to recognize the errors of the past,” Cortes said, adding that it begins “by not allocating more money to the police department … by recognizing that the current moment we are in is calling on you and calling on us to rethink our approach to public safety and our approach to investment … things that work.”
During budget presentations, the Parks and Recreation and Library departments laid out a spate of new initiatives and ambitions for the future of resident services, ideas that largely spoke to the points made by callers.
Among plans for the construction of two new parks and the renovation of the historic Santiago Park — in a city and area noted for a lack of open green space compared to other parts of the county — Parks and Recreation Director Lisa Rudloff voiced excitement at her department’s goal for a new, 10-year strategic parks plan:
“We’re creating a roadmap for our parks and open space and trails … the city has never had this before, and we’re excited to analyze comprehensively all four parks and facilities and get community input and come back and have a 10-year plan,” Rudloff said. Her department is proposed to get $22 million.
The Library Services department laid out goals to expand Wi-Fi access to young people in the library, beef up the hours of operation and services of the city’s New Hope Library, and even set up a virtual high school diploma program at the libraries that — with the help of a state grant — the city can award up to six scholarships for.
Library services typically get a minuscule portion of city spending, proposed for this year to take up 0.7% of the citywide budget.
While Solorio said there’s a need to “equalize” aspects of the budget and that there are instances of some police officers’ equipment being “overly militarized” he pushed back on the notion of reducing law enforcement spending.
He pointed to areas like Community Development Block Grant money and cannabis tax revenue going to youth services.
But where cannabis tax revenue is indeed expected to rake in $10 million and have $7 million set aside for the enhancement of city services, only $3 million of that $7 million is going specifically to youth services while, for example, $1.4 million is going to police and the rest to other city departments relevant to cannabis laws and planning.
He defended oversight systems in place for officers: “we have all our frontline officers wearing body worn cameras — that’s good.”
Councilman Phil Bacerra during the discussion said the biggest hurdle for the city is and will continue to be revenue generation.
“We’re looking at the pie chart and in awe over which department is getting more money, and the biggest issue is general fund revenue – it was amusing to hear certain things to defund and fund, and — at the same time — no suggestion on how to grow our revenue,” he said. “We need to be realistic.”
Though he acknowledged a prior point made by Sarmiento about line items in the police department budget that would appear to not be police functions. For example, Sarmiento listed off line items like “buildings and facilities, animal services, tobacco retail …”
“I have some questions for the police department as far as what they’re spending … when I talk to fellow residents, there are issues like homelessness — how are we addressing homeless? And yes, it’s not always going to be someone with a badge,” Bacerra said.
Penaloza corrected a figure stated by many public commenters Tuesday that police were getting a $13.5 million increase in police spending, when in fact the police are getting around a $9 million increase while the city’s fire department services are getting around $4 million. Together, the “public safety” increase proposed is more than $13 million.
Though Penaloza acknowledged it was “a lot of money going toward both departments,” adding he couldn’t support “this budget as it is because the huge increases to both departments.”
On Thursday, council members will finish their discussion of the budget first reading and get to a discussion on a much-anticipated police oversight commission.
The idea has been struck down twice before on the City Council. Most recently, former Councilwoman Ceci Iglesias tried and failed last October to get support for a police oversight board in the midst of a public political battle at the time with the police union’s president, Gerry Serrano. Iglesias was recently unseated through a recall campaign financed mainly by the union, and has been replaced by sitting Councilwoman Nelida Mendoza.
Back in 2017, a group of council members also tried and failed to get the idea to stick. Of those council members, Vicente Sarmiento is the only one still on the dais.
Now Sarmiento, Bacerra and Penaloza — three officials who are, or at one point were, backed by the union — are again requesting it.
Still, some public commenters on Tuesday said that as long as their requests for reforms go deeper in desiring a retooling of the budget, even a police oversight commission alone may no longer be enough.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @photherecord.