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Pandemic Puts Police and Fire Services on the Chopping Block

The Santa Clara City Council will need to decide whether to make cuts to public safety, devastate its reserves or greatly reduce essential services.

During its Tuesday night meeting, the Council discussed making some hard decisions in the wake of a $42 million shortfall in the budget due to impacts from COVID-19. Kenn Lee, the City’s Director of Finance, told the Council that it has to essentially choose between reducing police and fire services, pillaging its budget stabilization reserve or “tremendous service impacts.”

Lee sought approval of measures to reduce the looming deficit by $12.3 million, but the cuts to police and fire services were ill-received by several members of the Council. The proposal eliminates 43.5 positions from the City budget. Those positions are not filled, merely budgeted for, meaning no layoffs are necessary.

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The Council already twice approved reducing the amount needed in the City’s reserves from 25% of the general fund to 20% of the general fund and again to 15%. Council Members Anthony Becker and Kathy Watanabe agreed that reducing police and fire services was not something that interested them; Mayor Lisa Gillmor also agreed.

Public comments revealed similar sentiments.

Bob O’Keefe said bad public safety decisions have “destroyed cities across the United States.”

Deborah Bress called cuts to the fire department “on the verge of obscene.”

“Stop creating work where there is no work … Stop creating more pain for the people of Santa Clara and the citizens who put you there,” Bress said. “It is time to become accountable to the people instead of making them suffer … We need less management when we keep getting more management … Put on your big-boy-and-girl panties, and let’s see management take the cut like everybody else is.”

Police Chief Pat Nikolai said the cuts will see Santa Clara go without some of the ancillary programs to which residents have grown accustomed. Fire Chief Ruben Torres said the cuts are those that would have “the least amount of impact.”

Council Member Karen Hardy’s motion to approve Lee’s recommendation morphed into one to continue the item to next week’s meeting. The motion passed unanimously.

 

Marijuana Ban Stays In Place Despite Attempts To Revisit

Upon the request of Becker, the Council heard his plea to reconsider the ban on commercial marijuana.

Becker said lifting the ban would be a great way to increase revenue for the City, possibly allowing the City to avoid making cuts to public safety.

Previous reports to the Council forecasted that revenue from marijuana sales would not be as expected.

It is time to remove the stigma of marijuana use, Becker said, adding that the voters supported having commercial marijuana in Santa Clara.

Members of the public echoed Becker’s sentiment.

“The voters passed a measure, and they wanted it,” said Lisa Hiatt. “We are not following up with a measure that the public passed.”

Bress agreed with the assessment that banning commercial marijuana goes against the voters’ wishes. If Santa Clara wants to ban commercial marijuana, let the voters ban it, not the Council, she said.

Gillmor said while she doesn’t have anything against the recreational use of marijuana, but that the City “missed the boat” on it generating revenue. Had the City allowed it previously, she said she doesn’t doubt it would be a money-maker once the pandemic hit but now is too little too late.

Although Becker’s request was simply to give the ban reconsideration, possibly getting more data, the Council did not support revisiting the topic, defeating his motion 3-4. Becker and Council Members Kevin Park and Suds Jain supported the motion.

 

Committee Assignments Give Fledgling Council Members More Duties

Quibbling over committee assignments continued as well. In a continuation of a previous Council meeting, Jain sought a more equitable distribution of committee assignments. Jain had previously spoken to Hardy and Becker about the topic before coming up with a different arrangement of assignments for Council consideration.

Jain said he did not confer with Watanabe, the most senior member of the Council besides Mayor Lisa Gillmor, because the Brown Act precludes Council members from having a quorum outside a public forum.

However, Watanabe called Jain’s explanation a “poor excuse,” saying he could have had the clerk issue a memo stating his policy instead of blindsiding her.

“What you have done is a total lack of consideration or respect for all the work I have put in as a Council Member over the last four years,” Watanabe said.

Gillmor said the policy clearly aims to exclude her and Watanabe from certain committees. Representatives from other cities will “take advantage” of less senior members of the Council, she said. Although she said the decision was “fine,” she immediately explained why she felt it was a mistake.

“These are not on-the-job types of committees. It is brutal out there. You are in the big world now,” she said. “I do not feel like we have the strongest team. You need to spend time to learn, and, apparently, people don’t want to spend that time to learn. I think it is wrong all the way around.”

Becker said he hoped the less experienced Council members would “have an opportunity to grow,” prove Gillmor wrong and make her proud.

The motion to adhere to Jain’s committee assignment changes passed 5-2 with Gillmor and Watanabe voting “no.”

 

Council Opts to Leave Sewer Line Responsibility for Property Owners 

The Council also heard a presentation suggesting the City assume responsibility for private sewer laterals. The Public Works Department recommended the Council not assume responsibility for the lines, instead of leaving their maintenance up to the property owners.

However, while the Council did not commit to assuming responsibility for the lines, it did leave open the door for doing so in the future.

 

Consent Calendar Spending

The Council approved several big-ticket spending items via the consent calendar:

  • A $435,000 increase to a 3-year contract with Bay Area Tree Specialists; total for the contract is now $940,000.
  • A $50,000 increase to the 3-year agreement with West Coast Arborists; total for the contract is now $1.1 million.
  • A $20,000 increase — the option for another $10,000 increase for “contingencies” — to a contract with Black & Veatch Management Consulting for an annual study of water, recycled water and sewer rates; contract total is now $164,000.
  • Extensions to agreements with TRB+Associates, West Coast Code Consultants, Jason Addison Smith Consulting Services, Inc., Plan Review Consultants, Inc., Synergetic Consulting to run through the end of November 2024; total cost for the six agreements is $2.4 million.
  • $413,161 — with an option for change orders up to $82,000 — to KONE, Inc. for elevator maintenance and repair.
  • $119,910 to Precor Commercial Fitness for the purchase and installation of fitness equipment at the Santa Clara Senior Center.
  • $5.7 million contract with Anderson Pacific Engineering for the rehabilitation of the Laurelwood pump station.

The next regularly scheduled meeting is Tuesday, March 2 in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 1500 Warburton Ave. in Santa Clara.

Members of the public can participate in the City Council meetings on Zoom at https://santaclaraca.zoom.us/j/99706759306; Meeting ID: 997-0675-9306 or call 1(669) 900-6833, via the City’s eComment (available during the meeting) or by email to PublicComment@santaclaraca.gov

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