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At long last, Santa Ana could vastly improve high speed internet access across town and bridge residents’ digital divide.

The city could also create its own health department.

Millions could go directly to residents for relief in the form of debit cards coming out of the Coronavirus pandemic, perhaps for exclusive use within the city to boost local businesses.

And officials could tackle public safety through identifying and investing in more, much-needed areas for open space and recreational use.

Those are just some ways Santa Ana officials said they could reshape their community and help address some of this city’s systemic “legacy” issues, as nearly $143 million in new, federal Coronavirus relief money is expected to come their way.

Santa Ana is set to receive Orange County’s largest allotment. Mayor Vicente Sarmiento, at a March 16 City Council meeting, put it this way:

“This is kind of a once-in-a-century type of thing. We can hopefully make it a real transformational moment where we address some legacy problems and reinvent the way we do business in the city and really change the lives of our residents meaningfully,” he said.

A flower street vendor waiting for customers on Easter weekend on April 12, 2020 in Santa Ana. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

It’s not just an opportunity for Santa Ana officials to climb out of the pandemic and go back to their normal way of doing things, but an ability for officials to “build back different and better,” Sarmiento said. 

“Right now we have this really incredible opportunity to do things that are completely unprecedented, at least in my time here,” Sarmiento said. “We always say, ‘if you had a magic wand, what would you dream up?’ Well it’s one of these kinds of moments.”

But officials will have to hear directly from residents, said Ruben Barreto of local advocacy group Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities (SABHC), who warned that with each possibility for this new money comes an opportunity for officials to spend it the wrong way.

The city’s first public forum on the issue is set for March 25. 

Specifically, Barreto said, those who don’t have as much of a voice — but stand to be impacted by these decisions the most — need to be heard.

“When the city passed the sales tax (in 2018),  who got impacted the most? Undocumented residents. Did they have a say in it? No,” Barreto said. 

The funding comes as a result of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, a federal bill signed into law by President Joe Biden and aimed at helping local U.S. governments put the pieces back together as the dust settles from the worldwide health crisis.

Federal guidelines on how exactly to spend the money have not been published, said the city’s Finance Director Kathryn Downs at that March 16 council meeting. 

But the general parameters of the dollars require the city to use it to respond to the public health emergency with respect to Covid-19 and its negative economic impacts, including assistance programs; improvements to water, sewer and internet broadband infrastructure, and government services — but only to the extent there was a reduction in revenue. 

Sarmiento posed the idea of creating Santa Ana’s own public health department: “We all had to scream and shout and beg and plead for services for our residents (from the county).”

A Latino Health Access promotora walks through neighborhoods in Santa Ana on Dec. 11, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“The whole idea of … us dealing with health care issues going forward isn’t going away,” Sarmiento said. “If anything this is a precursor to other problems we’re gonna be facing.”  

Sarmiento said the decision could leave a “legacy for other councils and generations to come,” through Santa Ana deciding for itself “how healthcare is delivered to our residents because we are so unique from the other 33 cities of Orange County and we realize there has always been tension between the county and city. We can address that with some decisions we make now.” 

Sarmiento noted that the general spending parameters of the new aid money is also meant for improvements to broadband connectivity: “That is an expressed use of those funds we can implement here and now, and we know what a large need that is here in our city.”

“This is a huge infusion of money,” said Councilman Phil Bacerra, who added that, “In a priority way, yes let’s make sure we help these most needy residents in town — and help them whether it’s with rent subsidies or other ways.”

“But I really hope we prioritize the investment in our services,” Bacerra said, whether it be through overhauling the city’s outdated, underground infrastructure or providing more services to people in the city’s community centers. He also agreed that some of that money should go toward rehiring some of the city’s laid off workers. 

With the upcoming council decision on a new citywide trash hauler contract for the first time in decades — one of the biggest contracts Santa Ana will ever award — also looming, “there are a lot of changes here in the city,” said Councilwoman Thai Viet Phan. 

“One thing I’d be really interested in looking at is an emphasis on how we can look at being creative with the limited open space in our city and encouraging green space and greenery,” Phan added, saying the pandemic has highlighted the longstanding lack of available open space for people under lockdown to safely stretch their legs.

Santa Ana kids play in front of their homes on Santa Ana on March 18, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC
Fences stand where the handball courts once stood at Chepa Park in the logan neighborhood in Santa Ana. Dec. 11, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of C

Public safety, an issue that has long haunted Santa Ana officials and residents, was one more area the money could go toward reshaping, officials said. 

Councilman Johnathan Hernandez voiced interest in finding ways to fund more arts and education programs — “Very effective when it comes to moving people away from making bad decisions, provide young people an opportunity to safely express themselves.”

He also said the city could invest in headstart programs for socioeconomically disadvantaged residents and families, “so that as families start going back to work or commuting, we as a city have the infrastructure to help support their family … more programs for single mothers and families, because there’s a lack of it.”

Councilwoman Jessie Lopez proposed hiring residents from “high-risk populations” to do trash cleanup work, something that addresses beautification needs and public safety in one swoop, as well as the possibility of a public bank and opportunities for residents to host pop-up produce stands for food they grow at their homes.

Sarmiento said there are “high-level” ways the city could spend this money and transform Santa Ana for a new era, voicing disinterest in a trickle-down approach in favor of getting that money and aid to residents directly.

“Getting these funds bottom-up to our residents is really a way to solve people’s problems and really change their lives,” he said.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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