The Santa Clara City Council approved a 10% raise for its police chief — but not without dissent.
Although the City’s salary setting commission approved the raise for the police chief, Vice Mayor Kevin Park had a bone to pick. Park raised alarm bells about the bump, mostly because of a lack of clarity regarding the police department’s chain of command but also because of the qualification requirements for the role.
He called the police chief a “largely ceremonial role.”
“I think this is the first time in the history of Santa Clara that we have a police chief who is not the head of the department. At some point, we need to think about what that means,” Park said.
The Salary Setting Commission opted to give Chief Pat Nikolai a raise based on compaction. Since assistant chiefs’ salaries are tied to union bargaining units, their pay can approach the chief’s salary as an elected official, creating a situation where an underling could be earning nearly the same as his superior.
However, as Park noted, the qualifications for assistant chief are actually more rigorous than those for becoming chief. Further, there is ambiguity as to whether assistant chiefs are actually subordinates.
Aracely Azevedo, with the City’s human resources department, said Nikolai has a “dotted line” relationship with the assistant police chiefs.
Although Azevedo was not explicit in her description, a dotted-line relationship is one of lesser authority than a solid-line relationship, wherein a person has clear authority over another person. A dotted-line relationship essentially amounts to keeping the other person in the loop or collaborating with them as opposed to directly reporting to them.
Mayor Lisa Gillmor said Park was “denigrating” Nikolai, calling his comments “par for the course.”
“It is really cowardly that you say these things, these negative things about our elected police chief,” she said. “It is not, it is not OK. It is really unprofessional.”
Council Member Raj Chahal challenged Gillmor’s assessment of Park, saying he has a right to air grievances just like anyone else.
Park, too, fired back, saying he simply commented on the item as it came up on the agenda and wasn’t “waiting” until Nikolai was absent. He said he actually anticipated that Nikolai would be present for the item.
“Cowardly? I don’t think so. Cowardly would be to sit here and say nothing when there are issues like this, when there are questions like this,” Park said. “It would be better — I would free myself from attack from you, from Council Member Watanabe and others who will come here in the next meeting to attack me on what I said. I don’t think that is cowardly at all. I don’t think that is bold. I don’t think that is smart. I just feel like that is something I think I need to do.”
Although the Council was obligated to approve the raise, Park forecast his “no” vote by saying “someone needs to take a stand.” Park was the lone “no” vote.
Deficit Decreases, Council Approves Budget
Amidst the looming specter of deficit, the Santa Clara City Council approved the two-year budget.
At its Tuesday night meeting, the Council unanimously approved its budget, which now nears $2 billion. The budget in 2023-24 is $1.8 billion and $1.2 billion in 2024-25. Despite such a massive budget, the City is still underwater financially.
Kenn Lee, the City’s finance director, told the Council the City is still feeling the effects of the pandemic on City coffers. While the finance department has worked diligently to scrimp, the City can still anticipate between $8 million and $12 million of deficit over the next 10 years.
Lee said his department will continue to work to reduce that deficit by seeking new sources of revenue and reducing costs. The City is working on creative solutions to fill its 200 vacant positions and address $500 million in infrastructure needs across the City, he added.
Although the City is adding four full-time positions for this budget cycle, it has eliminated an equal number of positions in high-paying departments such as the offices of the City Attorney, City Manager and Human Resources.
Other cost-saving measures have included layoffs, grants and use of reserves. Potential future sources of revenue include the issuing of general obligation bonds and increases in sales and utility taxes.
Additionally, a voter-approved increase in the transient-occupancy tax (TOT) — 1% in 2024 and another 1% in 2025 — is projected to generate $900,000 for those years and $3.4 million ongoing.
The Council already approved a reduction in the budget stabilization reserve from 25% to 15%, something Lee said has dwindled to roughly half its previous $80 million threshold. However, finance department efforts have managed to replenish that reserve to nearly $93 million.
The biggest chunk of infrastructure projects include Silicon Valley Power receiving stations, which account for more than $165 million of need. Lee said the City will continue to look for long-term solutions on both fronts
Public Outcry About Swim Center Closing
Swimmers turned out to the meeting to voice their disdain that a broken heater has closed the Santa Clara International Swim Center for nearly three months. During public presentations, nine swimming enthusiasts pleaded to the Council to take measures to resolve the problem.
Over the past several years, the Council has repeatedly discussed replacing the swim center, but nothing has materialized. Despite being a major community asset, the center does not have money specifically earmarked for infrastructure improvements.
With the arrival of summer, many said it is paramount that the pool be open.
“If I asked you to work only 50% of the time you currently work, but still produce the results that you produce, what would you think? You would think ‘you are crazy. Who would ask me to do this?’ Yet, that is what we are asking of the children. These are the people we are supposed to be supporting,” said Karen Cornwell.
“You have to do something. Our kids need to swim. Our adults need to swim, and our community needs to restore the legacy and the champions that have come here,” Cornwell said.
Kevin Zacher, coach of the Santa Clara Swim Club, said the center is a major amenity, one that brings money into the City. The George Haines International Swim Meet had to be held in San Jose because of the closing.
Independent of the financial benefit, Zacher added, the pool had produced many world-class athletes, but more than that, it is a venue for life lessons.
“We are not just developing Olympians or great athletes. We are developing really great kids, people with great character,” he said.
During the budget discussion, Kenn Lee, the City’s finance director, told the Council that estimates on building a new swim center range from $30 million to $100 million. However, he said, to fund such an endeavor the City would need a “significant infusion of one-time money,” such as a general obligation bond.
Manuel Pineda, assistant city manager, said the City will conduct a forensic study to determine what is needed to get the pool running for the summer.
At Gillmor’s suggestion, the Council referred the item to City employees to look into temporary pools.
El Camino Specific Plan Committee Will Be Reconsidered
The Council will also reconsider the makeup of the committee for the El Camino Real Specific Plan.
Under the City’s policy to request an item placed on a future agenda, Adam Thompson, president of the Old Quad Residents Association, implored the Council to take a closer look at the committee.
Thompson claims that many of the members of the committee are business interests, those who are vested in the makeup of the plan, and therefore have a conflict of interest.
While City policy limited discussion to the merits of putting the item on a future agenda, Council Member Kathy Watanabe disputed Thompson’s characterization, saying those in question are “stakeholders.”
“When the committee was chosen, they were chosen and vetted. And so I really, and this project has already been delayed, and I think this is going to just delay it some more,” she said.
Gillmor agreed, saying that the committee members represent “giant organizations.” El Camino is a business district, she added, saying in order to establish a viable plan, the City “needs to have business input” with a “diversity of voices.”
Still, the Council voted 5-2 to add the item to a future agenda, with Gillmor and Watanabe opposing.
Consent Calendar Spending
- A $704,248 contract with Ron Paris Construction for the “yard renovation” project.
- A $477,730 contract with Villalobos & Associates, Inc.to install curb ramps.
- A $2.76 million contract with Robert A. Bothman Construction to rehab Westwood Oaks Park.
- A $200,000 one-year purchase order with Armstrong Painting, Inc., Fairway Painting, and Aiden’s Quality Painting, Inc. for painting.
- A $1.62 million, five-year extension to an agreement with h PFM Asset Management LLC for investment management; total contract: $2.46 million.
- A $16,000 amendment to a contract for the relocation of City Hall with Wallace Roberts and Todd, LLC.
- $330,000 in one-time, first-come-first-served subsidies to Santa Clara businesses with 49 or fewer employees.
The next regularly scheduled meeting is Tuesday, July 11 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.