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Police Spending in Watsonville’s Proposed Budget Draws Criticism

Many in attendance at the city council meeting said plans do little to address calls for more parks funding and cuts to the police department’s budget.

Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian

Over the next two years, the city of Watsonville plans to invest roughly $7.5 million to give Sotomayor Soccer Field at Ramsay Park a complete makeover and get several other projects at the city’s largest park “shovel ready.”

It also hopes to increase the funding for the Parks and Community Services (PCS) Department by more than a million dollars from pre-pandemic levels, and pump another $3 million into various parks and recreation facilities that are in dire need of a facelift.

But for many in attendance of the Watsonville City Council’s June 8 meeting, those investments did little to address their calls for more parks funding and cuts to the police department’s budget that have carried over from last year’s budget hearings.

The City Council did not make a final decision on its two-year budget allocations—it only voted to approve a 5% increase, roughly $28 more per month, to its annual pay. The elected leaders are expected to determine how the city will spend its projected $46 million general fund at its June 22 meeting.

About two dozen people during the June 8 meeting said that Watsonville Police Department’s $20.2 million budget is bloated, and that investing nearly half of the city’s annual general fund into policing does not address the root cause of crime—poverty, a lack of community and youth services and inadequate housing, among other things.

Nobody spoke in favor of the proposed budget.

Here is a breakdown of the 2021-23 biennial budget and the factors that could affect it in the coming months and years:

Overlook

The city’s overall budget is projected to be roughly $182.1 million this coming fiscal year and $180.3 million the next. But that includes special revenues and enterprise funds that can only be spent on specific departments and uses.

The general fund is the city’s most malleable pool of cash. That covers the cost of most employees and some of the city’s day-to-day operations.

The city will increase WPD’s budget by 7%, or roughly $1.3 million, from the last fiscal year. The next fiscal year, the department’s budget will rise by $862,838. According to Administrative Services Department Director Cindy Czerwin, that rise is a result of rising retirement and salary costs.

The second-largest department paid for by the general fund is the Fire Department ($7.95M) and the third is PCS ($5.2M).

Parks is seeing the second-biggest increase, percentage-wise, of any department in the proposed budget. That increase includes the addition of a community engagement and events supervisor, and the inclusion of two Environmental Science Workshop employees that were previously paid through another fund.

The largest percentage increase from last year’s budget comes in the Community Development Department ($2.9M). That roughly $1 million expansion was implemented over the course of the last year as the demand on the department did not slow down despite the pandemic.

Making a sale

A quarter of the general fund comes from sales tax, and although the pandemic depleted many municipalities’ general funds as sales plummeted during the stay-at-home orders imposed by the state, that was not the case with Watsonville.

Santa Cruz County’s southernmost city saw more of its residents spend a larger portion of their money locally and online—a departure from pre-pandemic times when locals flee to neighboring cities for their purchases.

The city’s worst sales tax returns over the past year or so came during the initial months of the pandemic, Czerwin says. Since then, sales tax revenues coming into the city have increased in each quarter despite the various openings and closings. That’s thanks to strong growth in auto sales and county pool allocations more than making up for losses in other areas such as fuel, restaurants and hotels, Czerwin says.

Czerwin adds that she expects both of those increases to level off, especially the latter as tourism restarts and people begin shopping in other cities again.

However, sales tax revenues are expected to increase by 2.5% in the 2021-22 fiscal year and by 3.3% the year after.

Policing committee

The city’s Ad-Hoc Committee on Policing and Social Equity is expected to have a recommendation ready for the City Council in the fall. That committee—made up of 12 Watsonville residents, one police officer and three City Council members—has been meeting in various formats over the past seven months to explore WPD’s connection with the community it serves, and create solutions to resolve the shortcomings that might arise.

Asked how the committee’s work might affect the budget, Czerwin at the June 8 meeting said it is too early to tell.

“This is why we made a pretty deliberate decision to remain flat with the police department’s budget this year,” she said. “Based on the recommendations of that committee and how the council chooses to act, it could mean changes to their budget or it could mean just changing the way they do things within that budget—it doesn’t necessarily mean there has to be a financial impact.”

Remeasure?

Through voter-approved Measure Y—and its predecessor Measure G—the city collects another $4.4 million in sales tax to further fund the police, fire and PCS departments. WPD receives 54% of that revenue, fire receives 38% and PCS takes in 8%.

With that additional funding, WPD in the proposed budget would hire a clerk and an administrative analyst, and fire is asking to hire two more firefighters. WPD already uses that funding to pay 11 employees, and fire has hired seven employees thanks to the additional sales tax.

But several people at the June 8 meeting said that WPD’s share of Measure Y should be lowered and that more funding should go toward parks.

Answering questions from City Councilwoman Rebecca J. Garcia, City Manager Matt Huffaker said that any changes to the measure would need to return to and be approved by voters.

The item can be placed on the ballot in a few ways, Huffaker said. That includes members of the community gathering signatures from 10% of the city’s voting electorate. In addition, the City Council could also bring the item forward for a vote—as it does with any other ballot measure—and if it is approved, it would go to voters in a future election.

Rescue plan 

Watsonville is set to receive $18.2 million from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act over the next two years. The vast majority of that money was not included in the city’s proposed budget. 

The City Council will likely determine how it will spend that money in a meeting before its summer recess in July.

In a three-question survey asking people what they would like to see funded with that cash, 110 respondents said the following:

  • Investment in parks and outdoor spaces
  • Invest in youth programming
  • Invest in our downtown and economic development
  • Invest in streets safety, cleanliness and beautification 

That survey was one of various ways the city reached out to the community for input on the budget and the ARP funding. It also distributed a longer survey that saw 770 responses and held seven virtual meetings regarding the budget, including five town halls.

In those meetings, the public mostly echoed the respondents from the three-question survey.

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