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A Vietnamese community liaison, more legal defense funding for undocumented residents, a memorial to lives lost to Coronavirus, affordable broadband access, and more after school youth and safety programs are all on the way for Santa Ana.

Those things come thanks to a new spending plan of federal Coronavirus relief money and new initiatives in this next fiscal year’s budget. The City Council unanimously approved both last Thursday.

That includes $143 million in police department spending, marking an increase from last year’s roughly $134 million approved by the prior council.

The new police budget, like every year, is miles above other departments like parks, libraries and public works, which each account for less than $7 million of this upcoming year’s spending of taxpayer dollars.

Santa Ana Police Chief David Valentin argued to council members that his budget accounts for no additional spending items. In fact, he said, his department made $10 million in supplemental budget requests — “items that we needed to perform at an optimal level” — which were denied.

He said the increased spending reflected in this upcoming budget only accounts for contractual increases for existing services in the department that were approved in prior years. 

Indeed, Councilmember Jessie Lopez put it this way on Thursday: 

“The department isn’t adding any new services, but the cost for existing ones are increasing.”

The council’s votes, which took place Thursday after the original Tuesday meeting was continued for time constraints, were only preliminary. The budget and federal aid spending plan will both come back to the council for a final vote before the end of the month.

City Council members on Thursday also unanimously approved an initial $79 million spending plan for what will be a total $128 million in federal bailout money coming the city’s way, after President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act this year.

The money will go toward things like a community garden, a Coronavirus memorial, more direct financial assistance programs and after school programs.

It will also go toward studying the possibility of creating Santa Ana’s own public health department, affordable broadband access, additional ways to tackle the city’s parks deficit, and will boost funding for local arts and culture programs.

And the new fiscal year budget finally sets the city on the path toward hiring its first Vietnamese community liaison to serve an estimated 25,000 Vietnamese American residents.

[Read: Santa Ana’s Vietnamese Residents Often Find Community in Other Cities, These Leaders Want to Change That]

Councilmember Thai Viet Phan pushed the liaison idea. 

Phan has repeatedly demanded City Hall include the initiative in their spending outlook over the last several months, especially amid a nationwide rise in Anti-Asian racism and historically low participation by the community in Santa Ana’s civic affairs. 

The city will spend $150,000 at most this upcoming fiscal year on the liaison position, though staff said the actual cost could be lower.

The city also overhauled its services to undocumented residents — estimated to make up a large portion of the city’s population — in a systemic way by increasing funding for the Legal Deportation Defense Fund by $100,000 every year and making it a reoccurring line item in the budget.

Those moves were supported by many activists and community organizations in town, with Phan at one point becoming emotional on the dais after the council’s vote.

Heads of the Information Technology and Library departments are also looking at ways to bridge residents’ digital divide through things like a public-private partnership for broadband infrastructure and laptop dispensing kiosks at libraries.

Council members like Phil Bacerra — while his vote went along with the rest of his colleagues — pointed to the city’s structural deficit issues and warned against “big drunken spending.”

The city could indeed spend more than it makes by $25 million by the end of the decade without any dramatic funding cuts or budgetary overhauls, according to ten-year projections.

Council members had no opposition to a new budget that puts hundreds of millions more dollars into the police department than every other quality of life area in the city. 

There appears to be no major reinvestment away from police this year, even with a new city council where some newcomers appeared to reflect community demands for a radical shift in the city’s public safety strategy.

Still, scrutiny over the police portion made it one of the longest discussions on Thursday, with council members like Phan, Lopez and Hernandez questioning whether the police department’s time was best served devoting so many resources to things like traffic stops rather than efforts to curb domestic violence and other crime.

Valentin and council members like David Penaloza said that traffic stops are a key crime prevention tool, and can lead officers to a greater discovery of potential criminal activity, recounting times when officers stopped someone for seemingly minor violations but ended up finding cash and weapons.

The idea of using traffic stops for minor violations in the hopes of finding more egregious, criminal ones still raised the eyebrows of council members like Johnathan Ryan Hernandez.

Valentin also pushed back on suggestions some council members made about removing cops from things like parking enforcement responsibilities and reducing traffic stop activities, saying it could have serious consequences for public safety in the city.

In his budget presentation, Valentin said the department has listened to the community — namely after the unrest in Santa Ana last year during a wave of protests against police brutality.

On Thursday, Valentin listed off future goals like implementing “restorative justice” programs, assessing “alternative” police responses to crime, and the expansion of youth and community engagement efforts like the PAAL child mentorship program and the Family Justice Center.

Bacerra challenged notions of “defunding the police” from the dais that night, recalling statements by others on the council who called for things like reducing the department’s overtime spending.

“The only way we’re going to reduce overtime is by hiring more officers, which would be increasing funding for police,” he said, arguing the department is one of the more progressive ones in the country and has “always been ahead of the curb.”

“We aren’t here to dismantle the police, but to make them better. Defunding the police is not going to be the answer,” he said, calling for putting even more resources toward the department rather than appeasing “squeaky wheels.” 

Yet the police department has long been — and is still — viewed unfavorably by activist organizations and community leaders, as well as researchers at the national Police Scorecard database, for example.

That negative perception stems from a number of things, such as the city’s aggressive police union and its power in influencing council elections over the years, big pay raises for officers granted by union-backed council members in 2019 — at the expense of residents who just months earlier agreed to let the city raise sales taxes on them — and use of force scandals.

Legal issues with the department have cost the public $20 million over the last decade. More recently, officials faced questions over why they were still paying former officer Steven Lopez with public money while keeping him on administrative leave — even after he pleaded guilty to a federal bribery charge.

[Read: Some Question Why Santa Ana Cop is Still Getting Paid After Pleading Guilty to Federal Bribery Charge]

On top of that, Councilmember Jessie Lopez on Thursday questioned why the police department viewed 9-1-1 calls about rape to be on the same priority level as graffiti per the department’s five emergency response tiers.

Valentin said dispatchers may not get all the proper information from initial sexual assault-related calls, adding that the department is conducting an analysis on their calls-for-service strategies and “we are intending to make some adjustments moving forward.”

“Rape, sexual crimes, those need to be a higher priority for our department — there’s no comparison when someone experiences that,” Lopez said.

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