A community gathering space in Santa Ana – if you can afford it. 

Last week, Santa Ana City Council members debated whether their working-class residents – whose tax dollars already go to community centers and recreational areas – should still have to reach deep into their pockets to use them for parties or sporting events.

In public comments, some residents said it’s driven them to meet at spaces outside of their neighborhoods.

“We are all volunteering our time to advocate for our neighbors and cultivate local leaders. Why charge us the same as for a neighborhood birthday or baptism?” asked resident Sandra “Pocha” Peña Sarmiento during public comments at the Aug. 1 meeting.

Sarmiento called it a critical moment for residents to be able to organize in a time of “new populations, rising rents, gentrification, environmental toxins and economic challenges.”

“These fees the city is imposing are blocking our residents’ ability to organize, to have the public space to advocate for healthy air, draft bylaws, identify new leaders, plan public events and encourage public participation,” she added.

Council Member Johnathan Ryan Hernandez called on his colleagues to “meet the community where they’re at” and decrease fees for neighborhood association events.

“I believe that our community center should waive those fees, given taxpayers are the very reason why these community centers exist,” Hernandez said. “Little leagues have reached out and shared they had games canceled due to increased amounts of fees … at this point it is unsustainable.”

But his proposal died on the dais that night without any support for a discussion and vote at a future meeting, with some council members arguing the city – which is spending the bulk of its $413 million general fund budget on the police department, and a much smaller amount toward parks – can’t afford it.

Under the current fee schedule, residents and youth nonprofits would have to pay $116 to rent a meeting room at a community center. City officials say the city doesn’t charge neighborhood associations for their regular meetings.

Athletic facilities charge hourly. For example, reserving baseball fields can cost youth nonprofits and residents $6 and $12 an hour, respectively. Space at the Santa Ana Stadium would cost youth nonprofits $34 and residents $50 an hour with no admission fee. 

But on top of that, residents might incur a number of additional fees for custodial and staff time, as well as a security deposit. 

After the publication of this story, city spokesperson Paul Eakins said the city arranges free locations for neighborhood association’s regular meetings.

“We have an agreement with the school district, so sometimes they meet at schools, sometimes at our community centers or other city facilities. We do not charge the neighborhood associations for these meetings,” Eakins said. 

In public comments last Tuesday, Sarmiento — the Eastside / Pacific Park neighborhood resident — said the free meetings run out when committees are involved.

“July was the last month our neighborhood association committees were allowed to meet free of charge at the Roosevelt Walker community center. After this it will be $232 a meeting plus a $300 deposit.”

In response, Eakins said the city doesn’t ever charge a neighborhood association for a regular meeting.

However, if a neighborhood association wanted to use community centers for a cultural event or party, with food and music, “they would have to pay a fee for the event at one of our community centers. It requires staff time. It’s a facility use, not just one of their meetings,” Eakins said.

Council members who did not support lowering the fees that night said residents should do more fundraising, and that lowering event fees for community centers could compromise their quality or lead to criminal activity. 

“We don’t have the funding. We have no more money to just say everything is for free now,” said Mayor Valerie Amezcua, who with Councilmember Thai Viet Phan urged residents to ask council members for money out of their $10,000 discretionary budgets, which they can award to community groups.

“Our city council has a discretionary budget of $10,000 a year, that we can use in order to support any nonprofit that is interested in working with our city who may not have the funds necessary, whether it’s to rent a location or hold an event,” Phan said.

Phan also suggested that residents “build partnerships” with profit-generating organizations. 

“We heard from a lot of community members about how expensive it can get and what not — but the difficulty is the city has to staff the centers. Whether it’s staff time, electricity, security,” Phan said, adding that the fees – at their current rate – still aren’t enough to recuperate incurred costs. 

“We are already subsidizing anyone interested in using the facility.”

Councilmember Phil Bacerra, meanwhile, wanted to know: 

“What are we doing for those that use our fields and they get a pretty good deal and then they take advantage of it?”

Bacerra then pushed in “the opposite direction” – “because at least in my ward, the residents surrounding those parks are frustrated when folks that go through the permitting process don’t even treat the parks like it’s their own backyard; they treat it less than that.”

He echoed Penaloza on another point, that before the current community center fee system, people were “taking advantage of it in a criminal way.”

Those who supported Hernandez’ move to lower fees said they weren’t pushing to open any floodgates. 

“I’m not saying to subsidize the entire amount but I am open to options,” said Councilmember Jessie Lopez. 

“We are looking for funding sources — I am interested in seeing what options are available specifically to work with neighborhoods and organizations that exist and are trying to continue their traditions and find it more difficult, more costly year after year to host events.”

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