V for Vacant
A year after Salinas voters approved Measure V, city-services and workers are slowly filling in the gaps.
Thursday, September 28, 2006
Last November, in an attempt to resurrect a host of cut city programs and services, Salinas voters approved Measure V. The half-cent sales tax would raise an estimated $10 million a year and would sunset after 10 years. Measure V promised to return the city to some sort of normalcy.
In the years immediately preceding Measure V, city leaders had cut $15 million from the budget. More than 120 jobs were slashed. Recreation centers were closed. School crossing guards were nixed. Graffiti abatement and landscaping maintenance became luxuries of the past. Most notably, the city’s three libraries operated scant hours per week with skeleton crews, all with donated funds.
“We always knew it was going to take a long time to get back to where we were.”
Now, nearly a year after 61 percent of Salinas voters approved Measure V, the city still looks and feels very much the same.
Libraries continue operating with minimal staff. Cesar Chavez and El Gabilan libraries are each open just 10 hours a week. John Steinbeck Library gets 13 hours. Crossing guards are still nonexistent. Cops on the street are still operating at pre-Measure V staff levels.
But while on the surface little has changed, behind-the-scenes, work is well underway.
“It’s a slow, slow process,” says Salinas City Manager Dave Mora. “We always knew it was going to take a long time to get back to where we were. But all in all, it’s moving as I expected.”
Part of the painstakingly slow process lies in the logistics. The state first started collecting the half-cent tax from merchants in April of this year. The city didn’t get its first check until July. It was just over half a million dollars. The following month’s was almost as much. The third and most recent check shot up to $670,000.
Just because there’s money to implement services doesn’t mean there are people around to do the work. Before Measure V went to voters, 123 city positions had been cut. Only 32 have been restaffed, though the current budget allows for 90 of those 123 positions to be filled. The city’s employment Web site lists openings for all kinds of things: account clerks, library clerks, librarians, police officer, swim instructor, recreation leaders and school crossing guards.
Jorge Rifa is the city’s deputy manager. When jobs were cut, he was assigned the task of overseeing the libraries. The City has not yet hired a library director, so the job still belongs to Rifa. “Our plan is that by Oct. 24, we can double the library hours,” he says. “We’re almost there.”
The increase will mean significant progress in taking the libraries to the fully-operational 96 hours per week that existed before budget cuts. But none of it can be done without staff.
Rifa says that the City’s been recruiting for library positions since early this year. New hires are still being trained. “We’re right there,” he says. “We’re right on the cusp.”
The Salinas Police Department is in the same position, according to Deputy Chief Rick Moore. Out of the 10 unfilled positions open a year ago, half have been filled. But those five cops are in training—not on the street. “Filling spots isn’t easy,” Moore says. “Just because we need help doesn’t mean we lower our standards.”
Community service officers, non-sworn personnel, have been hired to fill the gaps, like taking cold reports, for now.
It’s a temporary fix to a problem that could take months or years to fully correct. It may feel slow, but it’s not unexpectedly so.
Dennis Donohue co-chaired the Measure V Committee, a group of volunteers who worked to get the measure passed.
“I certainly understood that just the logistics, reopening, rebuilding systems would take some time,” he says. “We couldn’t just flip on a switch. I understood this was likely.”
Rose Colón is part of a seven-member panel that oversees what Measure V money comes in and how it’s spent.
“It’s always been about priorities,” she says. “There’s a huge list of what needs to be done, and then there’s what we can do.”
Closter, El Dorado and Central parks have all had restoration of some recreation services. The graffiti abatement program is back in full swing.
It’s a good start, particularly for a city tasked with adding services instead of cutting for the first time in years.
“I really have hope that we’ll soon begin to see all of the changes,” Colón says. “It’ll never be enough so we have excess, but we’ll get back on track. It’ll just take time.”
|THE WEEKLY TALLY||560,451||
Amount, in pounds, of trash collected on California beaches for Coastal Cleanup Day on Sept. 16. At Carmel Beach that included 1,177 cigarettes, 35 toys, one lobster trap and three diapers. Source: Surfrider Monterey Chapter, California Coastal Commission