People smoke marijuana for leisure, for the ritual of the activity, or for the effects – but in cities where it’s legally sold, cannabis could have another effect by closing spending gaps on long-neglected services, like libraries and youth programs.

Santa Ana residents are seeing the funding boost firsthand: Expanded youth services, like robotics programs, year-round aquatics activities, or wireless hotspots connecting kids to the internet.

Recently, the tax money Santa Ana officials collect from sales at licensed cannabis businesses citywide has funded the $884,000 upgrade of Santa Ana’s main public library, now featuring a children’s patio with a play structure and outdoor reading areas. 

In a city where parks and libraries usually get smaller slices of the annual budget, marijuana sales have financed what officials hope to be a first step toward bringing the Santa library to the cutting edge of what public libraries can mean for a community, for the public – and what kind of services it can provide.

“The public libraries are the only spaces in the entire city where we service everybody,” said Santa Ana City Council member Thai Viet Phan at the new library facility’s March 15 ribbon-cutting ceremony, before a crowd of parents and kids. 

“It doesn’t matter where you come from, what you look like – we service you.”

In 2018, Santa Ana officials asked city voters to allow commercial cannabis sales in town through a ballot measure known as Measure Y. 

Voters answered “Yes,” and now City Hall licenses, regulates, and taxes the legal cannabis shops operating in the city.

Since that policy shift, a substance with public safety stigmas has given the city a leg-up on closing funding gaps in historically underfunded priorities.

In 2018, the city established a “public benefit fund” through which all the new tax revenue from cannabis sales in town would be allocated to libraries, park improvements, and youth services, as well as enforcement activities relating to the city’s cannabis regulations. 

Yet such enforcement activities have expanded beyond issues of licensing and into public nuisance issues.

For instance, City Attorney Sonia Carvahlo at a July council meeting last year said her office, with some of the cannabis tax money, filled an attorney position that now handles “all types of nuisances, some of our troubled hotels and motels” and has been “successful in that … That’s where the funding goes. Quality of life services.”

But a spate of new investments enabled by the green leaf – and renewed scrutiny over the way Santa Ana officials spend most of their annual budget on police – have some officials wondering what else they could do with youth and community services if funding increased.

Over the past fiscal year, the city budgeted around $9.6 million of the public benefit fund to youth spending, according to a report provided in September last year. 

Around $5 million of that went to splash pads, lighting and facility improvements at local parks. More than $137,000 went to WiFi hotspots. Another $1.2 million, to Newhope Library improvements.

Nearly $3.6 million went to enforcement activities such as license inspection and legal services, divided up amongst the city’s legal, financial, planning, and police departments. The largest slice of that enforcement spending, nearly $1.4 million, went to the police. 

The same day the library’s new youth area opened, city staff at a March 15 mid-year budget update asked council members what to do with the remainder of $2.7 million in cannabis public benefit funds that was allocated, but still sitting around.

Council members Jessie Lopez and Johnathan Ryan Hernandez suggested sending some of that money to city partnerships with programs like Project Kinship, an intervention program for at-risk people in the community, as well as people impacted by the criminal justice system.

There are “college-educated folks doing very important work on the ground,” Hernandez said. “i would need to see them included.”

During that same meeting, Councilmember Thai Viet Phan doubled-down on what she’s been pushing for months: A funding boost to code enforcement. 

“We have a lot of code enforcement, but it’s just not enough for a city that’s our size,” Phan said, adding that code enforcement plays a vital role in safeguarding the wellbeing of residents who occupy residential buildings, as well as customers who patronize local businesses.

“They’re very much understaffed and underfunded, and a lot of folks don’t know, but (they) ensure our residents are safe,” Phan said. “It’s not just about cannabis – it’s about unsafe fire situations, overcrowded slums, businesses that are not complying with the law.”

Councilmember Phil Bacerra urged for better lighting of city parks: “If we don’t want to see bad activities happen in our parks, we need to encourage good activity in our parks, and that means lighting up our recreational facilities.”

He also called for some of the money to go to parking enforcement, saying the department is “woefully deficient.”

Meanwhile, some officials have questioned whether of the enforcement portion of that spending, which at the policy’s outset was a response to all the unlicensed dispensaries around town when sales weren’t permitted, but the unlicensed shops have waned in  number. 

Mayor Vicente Sarmiento said the city needs to continue its focus on youth spending.

“There is always going to be a need to invest in our own youth. That is something that doesn’t fluctuate,” said Sarmiento at a Sept. 7 council meeting last year. 

That night, Sarmiento and a majority of his council colleagues voted to amend the cannabis ordinance’s guidelines around the tax revenue’s spending.

What had started out last July as an amendment providing officials greater flexibility to adjust the spending levels between youth services and enforcement, became a policy several months later requiring that no less than 50% of the cannabis fund goes to youth services every year. 

Council members like Phil Bacerra, who supported the youth spending proposal in July, ended up opposing the latter in September. 

“I don’t think there is a council that would ever say, let’s give 90% to enforcement rather than youth. We don’t know what future budgets are going to look like. Cannabis tax revenue continues to grow. There’s a lot more opportunity in these funds for helping these youth – but also our enforcement,” he said.

Councilmember David Penaloza agreed: “Enforcement services are still very much needed.”

Last July, local activist Bulmaro Vicente – now a candidate for the area’s state Assembly seat this year – authored a letter on the subject on behalf of the local activist organization, Chispa. 

“The City of Santa Ana has one of the youngest populations in the country … yet our youth programs and services still remain under-resourced. We as a city can do more to invest in the young people in the city,” Vicente wrote.

Sarmiento said that unlike the need for cannabis regulation enforcement, youth investments are “a consistent need that we need to address.” 

“And unfortunately we haven’t addressed it to the degree we should, because we continue to see problems for our city and lack of resources for one of the youngest cities in the country,” Sarmiento said. “That doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.”

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