Engaging the Community in Salinas: How Residents Saved the Libraries
by Anna Caballero
Anna Caballero is former mayor of Salinas and Assembly member for the 28th District.
On May 3, 2005, residents of the City of Salinas appeared at the city council meeting to make a most unusual request: Consider placing an extra half-cent sales tax measure on the ballot to restore vital city services that had been reduced or eliminated during the financial crisis that impacted all California local governments beginning in 2003.
The residents who spoke that day had a full understanding of the financial and service issues faced by the city. Their understanding was the result of concerted and consistent efforts to inform and engage residents as Salinas was forced to reduce services, lay off employees and close facilities because of declining revenues and state take-aways of local government revenue. City efforts focused on extensive use of reports to the council and community during regular city council meetings, and special meetings of the city council to allow full participation by the public, city employees, labor organizations and other interested parties. The city’s financial and budget reports were placed on its website to allow users full access to information being considered by the city council.
The financial and budget discussions started long before the reality of the crisis impacted the city. Staff and council began a series of reports charting facts that would result in the required reduction of services and programs. Multi-year financial projections detailed the impact of the recession, state raids on local government revenue, the increasing costs of health and retirement programs, and the actions that would be required to maintain the city’s financial solvency. Reductions were discussed far in advance of when they would take place. The guiding principle of the city’s strategy was “no surprises” so there was ample opportunity to review the city’s finances.
To reduce its general fund budget by more than $15 million, every city employee agreed to salary and benefit concessions. The city’s critical paramedic program was maintained because the local International Association of Fire Fighters bargaining unit provided economic concessions to maintain the program. The participation of employees in these efforts to save services was recognized by the community and greatly enhanced the city’s credibility as it managed the developing financial crisis.
As the city council made the very difficult decisions required to maintain financial integrity, it became increasingly apparent that basic services were jeopardized and that only a community-based effort could begin to solve the financial crisis. The city’s library services became the focus; the final act required to balance the budget was the closure of all of the city’s libraries. Many residents were horrified that Salinas, the birthplace of Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck and home to the National Steinbeck Center, was on the verge of closing its libraries.
While public dialogue over the planned closure of the libraries intensified, I asked the community to help with a short-term solution until a longer-term solution could be implemented. The “Rally Salinas” campaign called upon the community to raise $500,000 in six months to keep the libraries open on a limited basis.
Beginning in spring 2005, Rally Salinas raised more than $800,000 in private dollars. The efforts could not have been successful if residents did not believe that the city was indeed in desperate financial shape. The success of Rally Salinas was yet another indication that residents truly understood the city’s dire financial situation.
In response to the early May request byresidents, the city council received a re-port describing options for placing a tax measure before the city’s voters to generate sufficient revenue to restore and maintain minimal levels of service for community safety, health and well-being. Members of the public again reiterated their support for such a measure, indicating that the community would suffer if services were not restored.
In June 2005, the council reviewed and approved the FY 2005–06 budget and confirmed the ongoing reductions in services required to ensure the city’s financial solvency. The public hearing involved in the budget adoption process confirmed the evaluation of the public that only anew revenue source could provide for restoring and maintaining public services. On July 12, 2005, the council adopted a resolution calling for an election to take place on Nov. 8, 2005, to ask city voters to approve a half-cent transactions and use tax. The proposed tax measure included a 10-year sunset provision and mandated the appointment of an independent committee with authority to both recommend the use of the tax revenue and provide oversight on the use of funds. A primary purpose of the committee was to ensure a high level of community participation and engagement.
No Holding Back
Having convinced the city council to place the proposed tax on the ballot, residents did not step back. Rather, they developed and sponsored a community campaign that resulted in a 61.74 percent “yes” vote establishing a Temporary Transactions and Use Tax at the rate of one-half of one percent as a general fund revenue that can be used for any purpose. The community’s approval of the general fund revenue tax was yet another example of residents’ confidence in their elected officials to appropriate the revenue in a manner consistent with the community’s priorities. This vote of confidence could not have been achieved without the full engagement of the community that took place over a three-year period.
The city council’s responsiveness to the community was tested again as the independent oversight committee began its work to recommend the use of funds. Members of the committee followed the council’s lead, working from December 2005 through April 2006 and holding neighborhood meetings throughout the community to ask residents how the new source of general fund revenue should be used. Meetings were held in each council district, with separately sponsored community meetings held by residents, and in two joint city council/oversight committee meetings. Once this community engagement process was completed, the oversight committee developed and approved recommendations for the use of $10 million in general fund revenue, the first-year proceeds of the tax.
The committee’s recommendations were presented to the city council. The same council members who had worked for years to gain the community’s trust and confidence further enhanced their credibility as the city council unanimously approved every recommendation made by the oversight committee.
The Salinas community interaction and engagement process is not limited to financial issues facing the community. The model has also been used in the city’s revised Inclusionary/Affordable Housing Ordinance. The original city ordinance adopted in the early 1990s provided for a 12 percent affordable housing set-aside for housing developments of 10 units or more. As the ordinance was implemented and the overall cost of housing in the greater Salinas area rose, it became obvious that increased production of affordable housing was required.
Following the adoption of a new general plan in 2002, the city began an extensive dialogue with affordable housing advocates, the development community and property owners to develop a more aggressive ordinance. The emphasis was and continues to be on meeting and fully discussing the issues with those impacted by city decisions. Over the course of two years and numerous meetings, a new Inclusionary/Affordable Housing Ordinance was developed and eventually adopted by the city council. It provides affordable and workforce housing in a range of 20–35 percent, depending on the type of housing to be built. The significant increase in the mandate for affordable housing was unanimously recommended to the city council by the working group, including representatives of the development community, affordable housing advocates, city staff and property owners. Collaboration, communication and consultation were the cornerstones of the process.
The lesson is that community engagement, collaboration and communication are all critical to achieving a successful partnership with residents in California cities. In Salinas, the goal has been to involve the community in all decisions and provide opportunities for dialogue and participation in decision-making processes. The end results are decisions that have broad support and acceptance, and create a better, more vibrant community.