Life-saving traffic signals and roundabouts.

Cameras for police cars. 

Expanded youth and park resources.

They’re just some of the things some Santa Ana City Council members – and residents – want to spend money toward this year, against City Hall projections of budgetary woes near the turn of the decade. 

A formal 2024 budget approval is expected by June 20.

A scheduled loss of sales tax money by 2029 has City Hall leaders poised to prove this year that efforts like controlling an “outrageous” stray cat population – and groundwater cleanup in contaminated neighborhoods – can triumph over the specter of financial uncertainty.

And it has some council members looking at sacrifices.

For instance: 

Council Member Thai Viet Phan this week asked hard questions about continuing the city’s “Winter Village” during a Thursday special meeting to discuss City Hall’s proposed $764 million spending budget this year, with nearly $414 million of it (54%) coming from the taxpayers’ purse as opposed to the rest, which comes from a combination of pass-through funds from state and federal coffers. 

The Rockefeller Center-esque seasonal escape for park-starved residents during the Covid-19 pandemic brought “some cheer to our communities” but was funded through federal pandemic bailout dollars and “last year cost us $900,000 out of the general fund,” Phan said of the Winter Village.  

“Now we’re looking at $1.4 million,” Phan said, adding “while I do think it’s a really fantastic time, I just think that can be used better or in other ways, and different programming,” such as a “Lunar Festival event – that’s something that residents have asked for.” 

Council Member Phil Bacerra urged against nixing the event to cut costs.

“While it does have a high price tag, what I’m hopeful of is that we were able to see from the first Winter Village to the second, a lot more sponsorship and so before we give up any hope on that event my hope is … we’ll be able to attract more sponsors.”

Meanwhile, City Hall staff have other ideas for shoring up an anticipated revenue deficit of what they say will be as much as $31 million in one scenario factoring a potential “mild recession,” when the special sales tax — established years back through Measure X — lowers, as scheduled, in 2029. 

For example, City Hall Finance Director Kathryn Downs said the budget gap could “effectively disappear” if City Council members were to approve a handful of large-scale residential and mixed-use development projects before the tax rate decrease.

“A scenario like this would provide the city with an opportunity to focus on one-time spending before 2029 to improve parks and rehabilitate streets,” Downs said.

Staff have also prepared new spending items:  

In response to calls to do something about its stray cat population – which continued in public comments on Thursday – the city proposed spending $75,000 for the trap-and-release of feral cats and spaying and neutering assistance to low-income households. 

And while most City Council members agreed with residents on expanding parks and youth investment, they continued to differ on how exactly to get there. 

“Yes, parks are very important but do we need to have safe parks,” said Mayor Valerie Amezcua during the Thursday discussion. “And if we are going to increase parks and have them open as we want them to, then we have a need to increase the number of police officers that we have.”

In cases like the proposed park conversion of the Riverview Golf Course, which has been contested by surrounding homeowners, Council Member Phil Bacerra said “people are actually saying ‘No’ to parks because we can’t keep them safe, clean and secure.” 

“So that should be something we need to prioritize.”

Council Member Ben Vazquez said safety comes from community investment.

“The reason that park is safe is because there is programming happening at that park … there’s a garden, there’s softball fields, there’s kickball fields, there’s football, people are walking their dogs,” said Vazquez. “Let’s talk about filling it with people, let’s see what we can do to make sure that the community creates safety for us.”

Council Member Johnathan Hernandez, meanwhile, proposed installing cameras for police vehicles: “It would protect us from litigation, it also ensures that we’re engaging in the most transparent practices in California.”

And additional funding for El Salvador and Santiago parks.

Specifically, Hernandez proposed that funding be taken from a bucket of cannabis sales tax money that’s currently designated for police activities related to cannabis.

He also echoed one resident’s call for a city-funded Youth Center.

“Why is Santa Ana the only city without a proper youth center that is actually funded by the city, not just a non-profit organization?” said Mia Verdin, a resident of Ward 3, in public comments. She said the city needs a place accessible to kids of all ages, and not exclusive to certain age groups. “Do better, the money is there.”

A new youth service included in the draft budget proposes $5,000 in recurring spending for a beat-making program at the library, in which young people in town can experiment with harmonies and electronic sounds in producing musical tracks. 

Both Bacerra and Amezcua pushed back on the idea of taking more money from police.

“As far as investing in youth, I absolutely agree,” Bacerra said. 

To Bacerra, that means investing in Santa Ana’s police athletic league, PAAL, which focuses on bond-building between kids and police officers primarily through sports.

“I think PAAL’s been an amazing program and that’s something that we need to do to continue to invest in our youth. The program has had amazing results,” said Bacerra, after some speakers in public comments on Thursday voiced support for the program expanding.

Another frequent topic on Thursday was the need for more traffic calming measures in a town with a growing population, with council members calling for a number of left turn signals at busy intersections, and roundabouts between certain streets.

Casting a shadow over all of last week’s ideas was the question of whether the city could pay for it by the turn of the decade. 

“I’m happy to now hear my colleagues echo some of the fiscal issues that we’re having,” said Council Member David Penaloza during the discussion on the dais. “This looming deficit is happening, and has been happening for a long time.”

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