Santa Ana City Council members could vote today on how to spend $75 million — out of a total $128 million allotment — of new federal pandemic relief dollars, which some say has the potential to reform some of the city’s longest-standing and systemic quality of life issues. 

The money comes from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, signed into law by U.S. President Joe Biden in March, and is designed to help cities spring back from the fiscal challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic. 

Yet some say the city’s federal allotment will do more than merely revive Santa Ana. 

The city could explore creating its own health department, improve internet connectivity and bridge residents’ digital divide, address its parks deficit, and create learning and safety programs for at-risk youth — officials have hinted at all of these things in past meetings.

As a result of council members’ comments at recent hearings on the new money, staff in their report for Tuesday’s meeting updated their plans with some of the following, additional spending initiatives up for this evening’s vote: 

  1. $1,000,000 in “Mental Health Recovery” programs. 
  2. $200,000 for a memorial to those who died during the Coronavirus pandemic.
  3. $500,000 in contributions to local health clinics.
  4. $2,000,000 in efforts to boost healthy food access in the city. 
  5. $500,000 in funds for an “Early Childhood Support & Head Start” program. 
  6. $500,000 in  “Direct Assistance Programs” which will include arts programming. 
  7. $300,000 in “After-School Programs” that will include homework assistance.

Though some community members and council members in recent days have put the spotlight on other areas of need: 

Members of Santa Ana’s transgender community showed up to a May 24 special council meeting demanding council members use some of that funding for housing, health clinics, and other supportive programs specifically for trans people. 

Trans people, especially trans women, struggle to get proper health care in the U.S. due to factors like a lack of insurance, unemployment, and homelessness, according to the National Center for Transgender equality. 

“We need housing programs for transgender people. We pay taxes and don’t get any help from the government,” said Jessica Flores, a self-described member of the “Translatinx community.” The city is home to trans advocacy group “Alianza Translatinx.” 

“Our trans brothers and sisters live on the street … you have forgotten us. We don’t have a clinic, health services in Orange County, for us,” Flores said. “I need my hormonal treatments and I do not have a doctor to give me those … we need housing that is specific for transgender people.”

Meanwhile, Councilmember Thai Viet Phan said publicly there’s a real need for a Vietnamese community liaison in the city.

Phan, the council’s first elected Vietnamese American woman, had voiced a need for this service repeatedly in public over the last year. 

Yet the idea had not come up in staff’s presentations during recent meetings, as well as on May 24, on what the city’s initial spending plan of the federal dollars could look like. 

“I am sitting on this dais today because Santa Ana settled a … lawsuit for depressing the Asian American vote in this city for decades,” Phan said. “Over 25,000 Vietnamese Americans live in Santa Ana. We have more Vietnamese Americans than the City of Fountain Valley.” 

Yet, she noted the city doesn’t have a good relationship with the Vietnam American business, religious, and news communities: 

“It is imperative as we talk about how to revive Santa Ana with these funds, that we ensure we work with and engage with residents who live and work in this city.”

City staff in their new report for Tuesday’s meeting did not include a plan to use the federal money for a Vietnamese community liaison, but proposed establishing such a position at City Hall through budget appropriations.

The City Council on Tuesday will also take an initial vote on the next fiscal year budget, which could fund the liaison and also provide $100,000 in additional city funding for undocumented residents’ legal defense from deportations.

Santa Ana Arts and Culture Commissioner Andrea Lee Harris asked the council to devote $1 million of that new money to arts and culture programs, as well as $100,000 in ongoing support for arts programs. 

Staff in their Tuesday report proposed $500,000 in “Direct Assistance Programs” which will include arts programming.

“Art is about healing, giving people expression, so we really feel that our arts programming will be something that will really help to cultivate growth and strength and change after Covid-19,” Harris said. 

And in a period of social tumult and hate, Harris said the arts are “also unifying — building equity in the community is something we really want to see happen. Arts are also an economic generator to help grow the city.”

City officials say they expect to receive the money in two increments, so the initial outline of the plan they presented on Monday accounts for the first half — now $79 million. As the other portion of the money comes in, the spending plan will “evolve,” City Manager Kristine Ridge said at a May 18 meeting.

Since that meeting, city staff have updated their plans — increasing the proposed spending in some areas and decreasing it in others. 

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. Read more about the spending ideas here.

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