In the heart of Orange County’s Little Saigon, a unique city program has for decades paired low-income seniors in Westminster with young children who are falling behind at school – often going home to single-parent households and financial instability.

The elderly act as mentors, but on both sides there’s a need, said the city senior center’s recreation coordinator, Blanca Luna, in a phone interview this week. 

Kids coming into the program with few reading skills leave reading chapter books; seniors who are emotionally tougher or “a little quiet” at first end up coming in more days than they have to – with their own ideas; some program graduates are now city commissioners, Luna said.

But that will all vanish within a couple of years, along with many other public services that Westminster residents tend to rely on, like access to all city parks, entire divisions of the police department, and things as basic as overgrown weed abatement.

At their Monday special meeting, live-streamed on Zoom, Westminster City Council members discuss their imminent bankruptcy – for 30 minutes.

The City of Westminster is headed for bankruptcy, and a gutting of public services, following this year’s expiration of a sales tax increase on residents that brought in tens of millions in extra cash annually, for a time patching the city budget’s structural deficit since 2017.

Known as Project SHUE, the community resource Luna coordinates is one of many City Hall services now headed for the chopping block. The consequence, she said, is “there are a lot of seeds that now won’t get planted.”

Some residents and City Hall watchdogs are struggling to find their elected City Council members’ sense of urgency, even in the face of a crisis that City Hall warns will noticeably impact residents’ quality of life. 

At a March 9 city council meeting that went to midnight, council members Charlie Nguyen, Carlos Manzo, Kimberly Ho, Tai Do and Mayor Tri Ta spent more than two hours bickering over an action-less city statement claiming some in the Vietnamese media are spreading “fake news” about them. 

At a special meeting convened five days later solely to address the city’s imminent bankruptcy – and after presentations by City Hall and public comments by flustered residents, laying the crisis out in detail – council members discussed the matter for a total of 30 minutes. 

City hall in Westminster, Calif. on March 9, 2022. Credit: JACK SUNDBLAD, Voice of OC

The city budget’s dire outlook stems from a combined set of factors over the years. 

Westminster doesn’t make much in property tax revenue, staff say. And rather than using that money to pay for firefighter services, the city pays out of its general fund. The city, like many others in California, is also on the hook for public employee pensions. And most importantly, City Hall for years relied on state redevelopment agency money to fund staff salaries and city operations, until former Gov. Jerry Brown nixed them in 2012. 

After that year, resulting budget shortfalls prompted city council members to put a 1% sales tax increase known as Measure SS before voters, who approved the measure in 2016.

But in December the tax measure will expire, cutting the city off from what was the only thing keeping bankruptcy at bay. Now bankruptcy is imminent, estimated to come sometime around 2024.

A majority of City Council members have already turned down City Hall’s proposal to let voters decide on extending the tax increase on themselves.

Indeed, Councilmember Kimberly Ho – who at one point two years ago endorsed the idea of putting the tax extension on the ballot – on Monday said it’s up to residents to get the measure back on the ballot if they wish to see it continue. 

“That’s nothing unheard of, and you can do that,” Ho said of an effort that would require gathering the signatures of thousands of registered voters in town for a petition – whereas the council could put it on the ballot with a majority vote at any meeting. 

“No one’s stopping you.”

Instead, Ho said, “I want this council to come up with more ideas for revenue … I think sometimes I work well under pressure, I actually do – I have more ideas when I’m under pressure.” 

“Now we’re all under pressure,” she said to her colleagues, whose bitter political divide has put basic policymaking in the backseat and made public meetings unwatchable since 2019. “And maybe we can all work together.”

The discussion didn’t go on for much longer, after that.

Yet residents facing the loss of crucial community and public services are now questioning their elected City Council members’ current priorities while at the same time looking to them for other solutions before 2024.

“We can’t just move along like everything is fine,” said Diana Carrey, a former council member who now sits on the city’s fiscal oversight panel, during an earlier presentation to council members that Monday evening.

Resident and City Hall watchdog Terry Rains put it this way: “All five of you had better vote ‘Yes’ to put the measure on the ballot when it goes before you. Again, it is up to us, the voters, to decide on the tax measure – not you.”

She criticized Do and Ta for refusing to put the measure back before voters in 2020 for “political reasons,” but added there’s plenty of blame to go around.

“Staff did a very poor job in 2020 of laying it on the line as to what would happen if the measure is not renewed.”

Even city employees at the public works department, as well as those from the police union, have spoken up at public meetings on the matter — facing what may be the loss of their jobs.

Without Measure SS revenue, Westminster’s structural budget deficit will increase by over $16 million annually following its expiration in December.

For the last three, council members have been repeatedly warned about the growing emergency – and implored to act on it – by staff and the panel that Carrey sits on, which was created virtually in response to the same issues which previously came to boil in the 2010s.

The elected body’s Vietnamese American majority made Westminster a nationwide, civic representation symbol in 2008. That progress is now threatened by political stagnance.

“I just want more for the community, a higher standard for civic issues,” said Tim Phan, a frequent activist in Little Saigon who comes from Whittier. “I want local residents to care about what’s going on in their community — good streets, affordable housing. These are our people.”

Instead, Phan said, “council members in Westminster have played up these culture wars and ignored what’s in their own backyard. When you’re responsible for the fiscal management of the city, it does residents a disservice.” 

“Now the Mayor is running for Assembly?” Phan said, remarking at Ta’s candidacy as a Republican for the newly-drawn 70th state Assembly district. “What makes you qualified when you yourself are leaving your city on fire as you’re headed out the door?”

The color bright red activates the Asian Garden Mall in Westminster on Jan. 20, 2022. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Two Hours of Political Fighting

The bankruptcy discussion was initially slated for the council’s earlier March 9 meeting. 

Instead, more than two hours of that meeting were devoted to a debate over a city resolution denouncing what some on the council called the proliferation of “fake news” in the Vietnamese media. 

The resolution was put forth by Councilmember Tai Do, and namely takes aim at the Trust Media Network run by blogger Nam Quan Nguyen, whose YouTube videos usually get several thousand views and count more than 200,000 subscribers.

Nguyen – once a city traffic commissioner appointed by Mayor Tri Ta – frequently criticizes council members Do, Ho and Manzo, who make up a majority voting bloc on the dais and frequently clash with Ta and fellow council member Charlie Nguyen (no relation).

Do’s resolution states that Nguyen’s media channel frequently pushes baseless claims about him and the council majority – among them being that Ho, for example, wants to “destroy Buddhist temples” to appease white residents.

It adds that some Vietnamese American politicians and activists in Orange County have “repeatedly and unethically sought to use their access to Vietnamese media” for “their own political gain,” adding that specific “fears within the Vietnamese culture” are “manipulated” against political rivals to “destroy their credibility and public trust.”

Carlos Manzo, also a subject of criticism in Trust Media Network videos, doesn’t speak Vietnamese and voiced concern for his safety. He added that Ta and Nguyen should discourage their supporters from making such claims in the media, calling them “dangerous.”

“It’s killing our community,” Manzo said. 

Ta defended the Trust Media Network that night: “They have the right to speak their minds. That is freedom of speech. That is the First Amendment, that we need to honor.”

He said any council members who disagree with things being said in the Vietnamese media – a dynamic and fast-growing cultural fixture in Little Saigon – can “go to another channel to respond.” 

“It is completely inappropriate for an elected official to use city resources and staff time to come up with a really lousy resolution against private citizens,” Ta said.

Council members passed the resolution at their March 9 meeting with Ta and Charlie Nguyen opposed. 

But by then it was midnight, and the bankruptcy issue was still on the agenda.

“Given the significance of the item regarding the budget … I would probably recommend we continue those items to another meeting,” said City Manager Christine Cordon, City Hall’s top-ranking executive who reports to the council.

“Just because I feel like it (the budget crisis) deserves a robust discussion,” Cordon said. 

Little Saigon restaurants and businesses on Jan. 20, 2022. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Budget Tailspin Gets Minimal Discussion

That discussion the following Monday lasted roughly half an hour, after two presentations – one by city staff and another by Carrey, of the oversight panel – and public comments were finished. 

“It’s no longer an elephant in the room. Obviously, the way services are provided and quality of life for residents and business in the community will be impacted, and the loss of revenue source will place us in a worse position prior to the approval of Measure SS,” Cordon said that night.

Even with the sales tax measure in effect since 2017, staffing levels at City Hall have remained at minimum levels, and many programs that were eliminated have not been reinstated to ensure that basic services were maintained. The tax should have put the city ahead, but only kept it even.

Yet council members didn’t seem to bring up any new ideas at the Monday special meeting. 

Brief mentions that night about revenue-generating billboards, improving visitor flow into Little Saigon’s core of commercial businesses and restaurants, and a revenue-generation “task force” were things staff said they’ve largely been made aware of already, thanks to a “strategic plan” on the issue which the council previously approved.

“We already have our marching orders to work on these projects and analyses,” Cordon said shortly before the meeting adjourned. Though she said city staff has “a few ideas” they aren’t ready to go public with yet.

Luna, asked what the loss of her ill-fated Project SHUE might mean for the community, recalled a first-grader with a single mom who came into the city’s program during the 2017 school year. 

“And when I was doing his assessment, I asked him, ‘What do you want to learn from this program?’” Luna remembered out loud. “And he said, ‘I want to learn how to read so I can teach my mom.’”

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

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