The city's proposed budget addresses public safety needs
The City of Santa Cruz’s pocketbook has come a long way since 2009, when an $8 million shortfall loomed.
According to City Manager Martin Bernal, the proposed general fund budget for 2013-2014 is healthier than it has been since the beginning of The Great Recession in 2008. Armed with this returning stability, the proposal puts one of the community's top concerns—public safety—front and center.
This emphasis is partially thanks to the mobilization of a variety of neighborhood community groups that have become increasingly active in the wake of recent violence, particularly the death of two Santa Cruz police officers in February, Bernal says.
“In the last half a year, public safety has had the most attention because of the number of incidences—the tragic shooting, concerns about needles, and transients,” he says.
Overall, the new general fund budget is just shy of $78 million, with a surplus of $1.5 million, Bernal says. The budget puts $34.6 million toward public safety, with about $22.2 million designated for the Santa Cruz Police Department.
If approved, this amount would mark the third year in a row that police funding has risen: first from $19.8 million in 2011-2012 to $21.6 million last fiscal year, and now with a proposed increase of approximately $530,000.
While the police budget is up, SCPD Deputy Chief Steve Clark says a healthy portion of that fund for the past several years has gone back to the city due to salary savings, which have accrued as positions that were previously vacated remained unfilled.
Money that is not spent by city-funded departments are returned to the general fund, Bernal says.
At the close of the this fiscal year, Clark says the department is projected to return $1.1 million to the general fund.
As detailed in the budget proposal, recent accomplishments in improving public safety include the hire of six police officers. However, Clark says the department, which has 94 allocated police positions, is short about 15 officers, 10 due to injuries. Additionally, he anticipates another four departures.
The SCPD has had significant problems recruiting and retaining officers, he says. This has made acquiring a full staff very difficult, and it's taking a toll on the department.
The short staff coupled with a record high number of calls for service is requiring that the department do more with fewer resources, Clark says.
Funding in the amount of about $600,000 for First Alarm patrols in problem areas, including the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf, San Lorenzo RiverLevee, downtown and in some parks, has helped relieve some of the burden on the SCPD, allowing the patrol units to focus more closely on high-priority crimes.
The budget report also lists the Predictive Policing pilot project, regular coordination meeting between the Police Parks Units and Parks and Recreation Rangers, and an increase in outreach and community engagement as recent accomplishments.
To help identify and respond to the complicated and multifaceted problems facing the community, the city council created the Santa Cruz Public Safety Citizen Task Force, which held its third meeting on Wednesday, June 12 at the SCPD Community Room.
The task force, whose 15 members listened to about 50 people voice their opinions on what they believe are the most important public safety issues for the city, will make policy and budget recommendations to the city council within six months, says Susie O’Hara, a city employee and Public Safety Task Force Coordinator.
O’Hara says the key issues the group is focusing on are homeless and transient behaviors downtown and in the parks, gang activity, violence, drug abuse, and the needle exchange.
“These things are really on the forefront of public discourse right now,” she says.
O’Hara says the task force's final recommendations “will be a manifestation of a larger evaluation of our regional strategy for public safety.”
In line with many of the concerns people voiced at the task force meeting, the city council adopted two new ordinances on Tuesday, June 11 that aim to make public spaces and parks safer for the community and the city employees who manage them.
One ordinance makes it illegal for people to remain on medians and roundabouts within the city for any purpose other than crossing the street.
The other addresses disorderly conduct in city parks, making it a misdemeanor for anyone who willfully interferes with use of the space, including the use of profane language, or harassment of park personnel. Park Rangers will also have the authority to ban individuals from the park for 24 hours if they violate the conditions.
Becky Johnson addressed the council to express her concern about both ordinances, calling them a veiled attempt to get rid of homeless people.
“This ordinance is not needed,” she said. “If there are actual criminal activities taking place in the medians or roundabouts, you can use existing laws to deal with those.”
Johnson took the podium a second time to speak against the parks conduct ordinance, saying she believes the law provides too much power to park authorities, who she fears will selectively enforce it and target homeless people.
“You're giving power to the authorities to banish people from the parks,” she said at the meeting. “You want to add on this stay-away order, issued prior to conviction.”
In contrast, another woman who identified herself as a county employee thanked the council for all the work they have done to restore the city parks and make them feel safer.
Vice Mayor Lynn Robinson says the ordinances reflect the public's desire for improving public safety and that similar laws have functioned effectively in other communities.
“It's very appropriate to keep our own staff safe while they're working, as well as the entire community,” she says “It's requiring behavior that's befitting of all people enjoying the park space together.”
As for the budget, which will go up for adoption before the council in July, Robinson says its public safety elements are reflective of community needs.
“This budget cycle will help us respond to what the community is asking for,” she says. “We have a very activated community and a council that's very interested in public safety. Collectively, the things that we're adding into our budget are all things that will keep public safety at the forefront of our focus.”
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