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A new public health department. Direct financial assistance to struggling residents. More youth-focused community programs. An effort to take homeless-related 9-1-1 calls out of police officers’ hands and divert them instead to nonprofit groups.

All these changes could be on the horizon for Santa Ana, thanks to nearly $130 million in new federal aid money expected to come the city’s way. It’s unclear when, exactly, the money will hit the city’s coffers.

But Santa Ana’s elected City Council still has to approve a spending plan, and will hold a special meeting on Monday afternoon to discuss it amongst themselves and with members of the public. 

City Council members will also discuss a draft of their new proposed spending budget for the next fiscal year, which calls for an increase in police spending by nearly $7 million, up from this year’s roughly $134 million.

The new federal aid money, signed into law by President Joe Biden in March, is designed to help local municipalities and counties recover from the financial blows of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Some Santa Ana officials have said this money could change residents’ lives — an opportunity to reform some of the city’s most longstanding and systemic quality of life issues, and a chance to fix anything from the city’s parks deficit to a digital divide among residents due to poor internet connectivity. 

City staff at a council meeting last Tuesday laid out their initial vision for the spending plan in a presentation to the council, after circulating resident surveys and holding online town hall meetings to gauge public opinion.  The specifics and finality of that plan are set to be discussed and fleshed out Monday.

City officials said they expect to receive the money in two increments, so the initial outline of the plan they presented last Tuesday accounts for the first half — $75 million. As the other portion of the money comes in, the spending plan will “evolve,” City Manager Kristine Ridge said in her presentation.

From the first half of the money, staff said they see the largest amount — $24 million — going to critical infrastructure improvements like refurbishing broadband infrastructure and affordable access to the internet for the city’s most disadvantaged residents. 

That portion of the money would also be used to revamp the city’s dated sewage pipe systems, as well as enhancing clean drinking water availability. 

Staff have envisioned $14 million for operations like addressing the city’s parks and open green space deficit, though Ridge last Tuesday said it remains to be seen to what extent that’s allowed under the federal spending guidelines. 

That money could also go toward healthy food accessibility projects, improvements to existing parks and community centers, and even safety programs for the homeless — such as diverting homeless-related 9-1-1 calls away from police to nonprofit aid groups. 

Around $16 million is proposed to go to direct assistance programs for residents, through things like stimulus checks to residents and small businesses.  

On top of that, staff said they could use the money on efforts to address systemic youth safety issues in the city through things like afterschool programs, early childhood education programs, and “digital literacy” education. 

Around $6 million is proposed to go to the city’s ongoing efforts to address the COVID-19 health crisis itself, Ridge said. 

“I know we were all optimistic of full vaccinations and openings; we do believe there is still a lot to accomplish in this area,” she said last Tuesday, adding there’s a need to combat vaccine hesitancy and assist community clinics in further vaccine outreach efforts. 

The money would also go toward improving the city’s communications and resident notification systems through things like digital boards, text alerts and more multilingual services. 

Ridge said some of that money would also go into a feasibility study to determine how the city may have handled the pandemic differently had Santa Ana had its own public health department, and whether “that’s something we would want in the future.”

Around $15 million would be set aside to make up for the city’s revenue losses through hits to sales tax, as well as hotel and tourism commerce, during the pandemic. 

The city would also receive a separate allocation of around $21 million in federal money specifically for housing projects, Ridge said.

On the annual budget, the city’s Finance Director Kathryn Downs said she anticipates around $341 million in total city revenue during the next budget cycle. In turn, staff have proposed around $353 million in spending of taxpayer dollars. 

Most of that money, as happens every budget cycle, would go to the police department, if approved.

Other things accounting for proposed spending increases in the budget include: park enhancements, city redistricting operations, and replacing and repairing infrastructure. But mostly, spending increases proposed for the next cycle stem from contractual city employee salary obligations. 

“Employee-related costs continue to increase steadily,” Downs said during the presentation to council members last Tuesday. 

Council members were initially poised to spend much more on police than they actually did this year, after staff last year proposed an amount that’s similar to what’s now being proposed for next year. 

Then a white Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, a Black man, last Memorial Day. Then a wave of police protests engulfed the U.S. and Orange County. 

Public outrage prompted Santa Ana officials to reroute some of their police spending at the time, bringing it down to nearly $134 million, but they still increased it by millions from the prior year, to some residents’ ire. 

City staff in their presentation last Tuesday claimed that, when they sent out a public opinion survey on the next budget, most responding residents said they wanted to see public safety resources increase. Though officials admitted the survey wasn’t in any way “scientific.”

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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