A deficit budget covering the next two fiscal years will see the city of Visalia outspending its income by more than $3 million.
The plan–which spends $72.9 million in fiscal year 2020-21 with a $1.48 million deficit and $73.9 million in FY 21-22 with a $1.55 million deficit–received unanimous support from the Visalia City Council at its latest meeting, held June 15. The shortfall, which was discussed at length during previous meetings, comes in the wake of the COVID-19 shut-down and resulting reduced tax revenues.
Previously, the city had expected a $4-5 million surplus from the current budget. Instead, just $146,300 will carry over. The city will see no interruption in services as a result, and its “rainy day” fund of $15.2 million will remain largely untouched.
Police Spending a Hot Topic
As has been the case for the last few meetings of the council, the Visalia Police Department was the focus of much of the public’s commentary, including during the budget hearing. Several of those who spoke, including Cassidy Friend of Visalia, called for rethinking the VPD’s budget allocation in light of the recent demonstrations in the wake of the killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd at the hands of police.
Specifically, Friend addressed the notion of “defunding” the police, describing it not as ending vital police services, but rather ending police responsibility for situations that do not involve enforcing the law, such as dealing with the city’s growing homeless population.
“I think we’re being asked to consider our police departments and whether we’re using their precious time in the best way,” Friend said. “We expect one set of professionals to deal with a wide array of emergencies.”
Making Policing Easier for Police
In addition to funding police, Friend would like to see the city pay for response teams specialized in areas such as mental health intervention, leaving police free to deal with crime and keeping the peace.
“I dream of a world where we can take some of this load off the police department,” she said. “For that world to be real, we need to invest in our communities.”
VPD funding accounts for 42% of the city’s general fund spending, and amounts to 19% of the overall budget.
“I wonder what our city would look like if we invested in our community and community services as much as we invest in our police,” Friend said.
Mayor Bob Link, however, reminded those who supported a reallocation of funding that this was the final meeting of a months-long budget-making process with opportunities for public input that began in March.
“If you want things added or subtracted, that’s the time to give your opinion,” he said.
Investing in Visalia
Proponents of changing the way Visalia polices its citizens promised they will not let the issue rest and plan on continuing to make their presence felt.
“I’m sorry I came so late in this budget process,” said Visalia resident Liza Raiza. “But, I’ll see you at the next meetings, as I and others keep educating ourselves.”
Specifically, Raiza asked the council to expand social services and to focus on youth.
“I hope you’ll look into ways to invest in our community,” she said. “In community centers where they’re most needed.”
Raiza’s plea echoed sentiments expressed earlier in the meeting, when the council heard citizen ideas on how to allocate funding from Measure N–the city’s 0.5% sales tax directed at funding roads and parks, as well as the city’s fire and police departments.
No Repurposing Measure N
The allocation of Measure N funding was fixed in the text of the measure itself, with 2% going to spending on youth programs. There were calls from both sides of the dais to change that in light of recent events.
“There’s been a lot of talk about funding for police departments,” Councilman Greg Collins said in response to citizen comments. “The way we spend money often times has to be balanced. I felt that spending 10 percent of our Measure N money on our youth would pay dividends down the road.”
A more engaged youth, he argued, requires less policing. That idea was quickly quashed, at least in terms of shifting Measure N funding.
“We have to do what we promised the voters we would do,” said Councilman Brian Poochigian.
Councilman Steve Nelsen echoed that sentiment in responding to Collins.
“It allocated what the citizens felt was important,” Nelsen said. “He (Collins) needs to understand what Measure N is. It’s a contract with the citizens. It’s not that we’re not listening. Our hands are tied about what we can shift around and jive in this measure.”
Demilitarizing Visalia’s Police
That said, the provisions of Measure N do allow the council some leeway. Currently, the council is using Measure N funds to pay the salaries of 24 VPD officers, including the hiring of three new officers over the next two years.
Visalia resident Courtny Carini–who described herself as a friend of VPD Chief Jason Salazar and a business owner who voted to support Measure N–said Visalia does not need additional police and would rather see the funding reallocated.
“We’re going to fund 24 officers. For what? To make more arrests like those guys who ran the protesters down?” Carini said, referring to an incident in which a driver struck two protesters during a Black Lives Matter event in Visalia on May 30. “Our citizens need more resources, not more handcuffs.”
Carini again referenced “defunding” the police, describing it as investment in social services as a way to prevent crime.
“It sounds very scary on the surface,” she said. “I hope you will all go home and do some Googling. I wish people would with an open mind investigate why we want to do this.”
Visalian Maile Melkonian urged the council to demilitarize the city’s police force and return it to a more traditional role.
“When I was a child, they were peace officers,” she said. “Now, they’re just police.”
The council voted 4-1 to approve Measure N spending as budgeted, with Collins casting the lone no vote.