With its numerous community meetings and multilingual online messaging, both local officials and community activists can agree: 

Santa Ana is one of Orange County’s most proactive cities in asking what its residents would like to see funded in upcoming budgets.

Yet even this leading city is struggling with getting residents to actually respond.

In getting the word out on this year’s budget cycle, City Hall staff have seen engagement from less than 1% of the city’s more than 310,000 residents – counting just 71 participants across this year’s seven community budget meetings, and 1,050 of what city staff call “public engagements” as of May 2.

On Monday, City Hall spokesperson Paul Eakins said those numbers will likely rise as the deadline for the city’s online budget input survey is May 14, and that 1,036 of those “public engagements” account for survey responses so far. 

Compared to last year, Eakins said the city has seen more than double the number of budget survey responses – from 515 in 2022 to 1,036 to date for 2023. “We also received 90 responses on our new budget simulation tool.”

As of Monday, he said total public engagements were now in the ballpark of 1,200.

Yet there are more than 300,000 people living in Santa Ana, said Mayor Valerie Amezcua at the May 2 meeting, voicing concern about those outreach numbers while her colleagues on the dais discussed their priorities for this next fiscal year’s budget.  

“But only a thousand people responded, and that immediately catches my eye,” said Amezcua, who wondered aloud that night about how city staff might turn better response numbers around:

“I’m not asking you guys to go out and knock on doors, but there has to be more PR, because when we’re talking about the budget for our whole city,  whether it’s the North End, East End, South End … it just kind of makes me sad that only a thousand people engaged in our City’s budget discussion.”

It’s the result of what Eakins called “extensive work” to “engage and inform residents through our various communications platforms,” which include city newsletters, the city smartphone app, and social media posts and advertisements in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.

Eakins estimates these communications “had a total reach of approximately 372,000 people (some of these may have been duplicates of people who saw the information on more than one platform.)”

It comes in advance of serious conversations about the fiscal future of City Hall, such as a major scheduled drop in sales tax revenue in 2029 – which could throw funding into uncertainty for various city services – while officials wrestle with spending priorities across issues like parks and police. 

In terms of community outreach, “Santa Ana does a lot more than pretty much any other city that I’m personally aware of,” said City Councilmember Thai Viet Phan in a Monday phone interview. 

“And I know that our Vietnamese community liaison, Tina Do, has been on several TV shows, and we even got some stuff in our Vietnamese newspapers to try to get the word out. So it’s really a lot, short of going door-to-door and asking people what they want to see in the budget, which is, frankly, just way more expensive than we could possibly afford.”

Ely Flores, the executive director of one of Orange County’s most high profile community activist groups, said he would agree with the notion that Santa Ana is a leader in the public input field.

“I haven’t seen a lot of other cities do as much of a proactive approach,” said Flores, who leads Orange County Communities for Responsible Development (OCCORD), in a Monday phone interview. “I have seen Santa Ana invest more of their capital and thinking behind it.” 

Responding to questions on Monday, a spokesperson for the neighboring City of Anaheim said officials there will take part in “more than 10 public meetings on our proposed budget” between May and June.

“We will hold two meetings with our Budget, Investment and Technology Commission (which advises the Council on those issues) in May and June. We will take part in six neighborhood meetings in each of our six Council districts from June 7 through June 22,” said city spokesperson Mike Lyster in a Monday email response to questions.

“We will record the neighborhood meeting budget presentation and share that online soon after. There will be two workshops at City Council, one on the overall budget and one on the capital improvement section.”

In Irvine, another neighboring town, City Manager Oliver Chi on Monday said “we do extensive outreach as part of our overall budget process.”

“We’ve had online surveys, several community meetings, and we review the budget through our City Commissions, prior to the budget coming before the council for consideration.”

In Santa Ana, Flores said “there’s still a lot to be done.” 

Phan, likewise, said “there’s always more we can do.”

And both have the same idea. 

“If I had to hazard a guess, one thing we could do better is to be more involved with our local nonprofits,” Phan said, adding that although the city’s tried to solicit input online and in person. “There’s a reason why the Census goes door to door.”

Flores said the “big missing piece” is “getting nonprofit organizations to work with cities to get that input.”

“Organizations are willing to do that. But I think the city has to be a bit more proactive with engaging nonprofits in the process of when they’re actually developing what the survey is going to be, and why the survey is going to be done. And then, I think, organizations will be more invested in doing it.” 

Eakins said City Hall did not consult community groups on the creation of their budget feedback survey. 

“But we listened to feedback we received from last year’s survey and budget process and made adjustments, making the survey shorter with simpler questions so that it could be completed in less than 4 minutes,” he wrote in his email.


“More investment in the community means more input from the community,” Flores said.

Meanwhile, City Council members are fast approaching their next opportunities to publicly weigh in themselves, with a public workshop scheduled for May 11 and another on May 16 if needed. 

A formal public hearing on the budget is expected at the council’s regular June 6 meeting, and formal adoption is expected by June 20. 

Amezcua, during the May 2 meeting, pointed out that the low response numbers still drove the city’s presentation on what community funding priorities materialized from this year’s workshops. 

Staff in their May 2 presentation noted “common community concerns” around maintaining and expanding parks and community services, as well as budget priorities they say they documented from residents around homelessness and crime reduction programs. 

“I’m going to attach it to my forehead because those are the two priorities that those 1,050 people talked about,” Amezcua said.

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