For Salinas voters, Election Day will be particularly weighty this November.
A half-cent sales tax increase on the ballot, Measure V, will have far-reaching effects. Voters know that the futures of the city’s libraries, recreation centers, fire and police forces ride on Measure V. But they may also be casting their vote for or against the entire political future of Salinas Mayor Anna Caballero.
Soon, Caballero, a Democrat, is expected to announce whether or not she’ll run for the California state Assembly seat now occupied by Simón Salinas, forced out by term limits.
Caballero has the political clout to run. She has served on the City Council since 1991. In 1998, Caballero became the first woman and the first Hispanic mayor in Salinas’ 136-year history. On leave from her position as senior partner of the law firm Caballero, Matcham & McCarthy, Caballero is now executive director of Partners for Peace, a Salinas nonprofit whose mission is the reduction of Salinas’ gang violence.
But as Nov. 8 approaches, the viability of Caballero’s candidacy for any political office may hinge on the outcome of Measure V. If it doesn’t pass, and all of Salinas’ libraries close, Caballero could be the one who shoulders the burden of the closures. “I see the feedback. I get the anonymous e-mails,” Caballero says. “Some of them are really personal: You’re crooked, corrupt; you’ve raised your salaries and you cut services.”
Measure V is Salinas’ second attempt at resurrecting its libraries through voters. Measure A was a sales tax measure on last year’s ballot that narrowly failed.
On July 12, with all three of the city’s public libraries operating on donated money with skeleton crews and barely-there hours, the council voted to put a half-cent sales tax on the ballot.
Rally Salinas!, a temporary grassroots library funding effort, has raised a little more than $700,000—well over the initial $500,000 goal and a later adjusted goal of $650,000. But Rally Salinas! was just stopgap funding until a permanent source of money could be found. That funding is Measure V.
When Salinas residents failed to pass Measure A in 2004, Caballero blamed a lack of community education.
This time around, a number of local nonprofits undertook a feasibility study for a similar measure on this year’s ballot. The study revealed that voters were willing to pay higher taxes in exchange for public services.
A specific tax that spells out exactly what funds will be spent and where would have required a 66 percent majority to pass. Measure V says that funds will be used “to address an existing emergency related to Salinas’ ability to fund all general public services…”
Because of its nonspecific language, Measure V will only need a simple majority to pass—50 percent plus one.
While state law bars Caballero from being specific about Measure V’s expenditures, Caballero says there will be a council-appointed oversight committee.
“We’ll have public hearings to determine what we use it for,” she says. “We’re going to replace the things that have been cut.”
The reasons for Salinas’ fiscal crisis and on-again/off-again library closures depend on who’s asked. City officials point to the State reaching into city coffers to support its own fiscal deficit. Additionally, booking fees at the jail have increased, as have salaries and benefit packages for city employees.
While none of these is particularly unique to Salinas, Caballero argues that Salinas is different.
“The biggest misconception is that all cities are created equal, and all cities have the same sources of revenues,” she says. “That’s not true. Many cities are like families: poorer than other cities. Communities that have a lot of housing, like Salinas, tend to be poorer because property taxes are the source of revenues that the state has been raiding. So communities like Salinas that are dependent on property taxes will always be behind the eight ball.”
Caballero adds that Salinas doesn’t have the huge base of revenue-generating businesses like the booming retail communities of Gilroy and Morgan Hill.
“Every one of them has a moratorium on housing,” she says. “They can’t house the people they’re employing.” Places like Salinas end up housing for other cities’ workforce.
Still, voters blame city officials, and Caballero admits that it’s the leaders, in times of crisis, who usually end up being the sacrificial lambs at election time.
“During tough times, people always lash out at the people who are the bearers of bad news,” she says. “They figure, ‘We’re being tricked, or the mayor’s not telling the truth.’ But the truth is, we’re doing the best we can.”
Republican Bob Perkins, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, has already announced his candidacy for the District 28 Assembly seat. Libraries or no libraries, Perkins admits Caballero would be a nearly unbeatable opponent if she decides to run.
“I know I’m in an uphill battle, but I’m one of the people willing to undertake that challenge, even if it’s a long shot,” Perkins says.
This will be Perkins’ second attempt at the Assembly seat. He lost the election last year to Assemblyman Salinas.
To date, the only other confirmed candidate is Watsonville’s mayor, Democrat Ana Ventura Phares. Phares—whose résumé includes working as a lawyer for the California Rural Legal Assistance and city councilmember since 1998—has served as mayor for just under a year.
Last month, Monterey County Supervisor Fernando Armenta, who’d long been considered Salinas’ most likely successor, announced he would not be running for the seat.
Political insiders expect Caballero to be campaigning hard for Measure V, if not just to save Salinas libraries and public services, but to resuscitate her own political career. Caballero is unfazed by the notion that the passage of Measure V is necessary for a win in future political campaigns, though she says she’s considered it.
“Some people get into politics for power,” she says. “I got into politics because I wanted to make the community a better place and because people opened the door for me to get a college education. I’d like to think I’ve built more trust and compassion in people, and they can look at what’s gone on in the community while I’ve been around rather than just one issue. I’ve always done the best I could for this city.”