Thursday, November 3, 2005
Mayor Anna Caballero is sitting at a small table at Starbucks on Constitution Avenue in Creekbridge, staring out the window at her city. She’s lost in thought, daydreaming about what lies ahead for the city if the proposed half-cent sales tax, Measure V, passes on Tuesday.
Caballero can bring herself to think in terms of necessity—a few cops, some crossing guards, some street cleanup. And then there’s the obvious: reopening the city’s three libraries to full staff and capacity.
But Caballero’s having a hard time getting much further. It’s understandable. Mayors of cities in positions like Salinas—broke and struggling with immediate problems—are forced to stay in the here and now.
The “now” part is painful. Sales tax revenue has dropped by a million dollars from preceding years. Fifteen million dollars have been cut from the city’s budget in three short years. Though the city’s crime rate is up overall, at press time, the city had just suffered its seventh murder of the year—a dramatic decrease from recent years. But still.
The average price of a home is just under $600,000. The average household income is $59,000, qualifying a debt-free buyer with perfect credit and 20 percent down to buy a home for around $325,000.
The “here” is the beautiful part.
Salinas is steeped in tradition and history. John Steinbeck’s birthplace, and home to the California Rodeo for 95 years, it remains a bucolic agricultural capital with a thriving industry and abundant natural beauty.
Many neighborhoods are still lovely. And a trip through Oldtown is a step back in time, with its replica gas lamps and cobblestone streets and families strolling just to stroll.
But the budget cuts have wreaked havoc on this historic town, and the little reminders are everywhere.
Caballero is still staring out the window, now talking about the future of libraries when the expression on her face morphs mid-sentence from all-business into elation, and she bolts up in her seat, seeing a friend, smiling ear to ear. “Oh, look, there’s Cindy!” she cries out.
And then reality sets in, and Caballero shrinks back into her chair, her bottom lip pushed outward like a girl who’s just been reminded of a sad fact of life.
Cindy is Cindy Marquez, one of Caballero’s favorite people. Marquez was one of many city employees who fell victim to the bludgeoning budget axe. She was the volunteer services coordinator.
Under Marquez’ direction, the city reaped the benefit of volunteers who worked the equivalent of 250,000 labor hours per year. They worked in the police, planning, and maintenance departments, making phone calls, filing, typing, and organizing community cleanups.
The volunteers still call. But without Marquez or anyone in that unfunded position, there’s no one to organize workers and take advantage of offers for free help in tough times.
But if the old adage of “this too shall pass” holds true for Salinas—and it’s not hard to find folks who believe it does—then a year from now, two years from now, Salinas could be a much different place.
Measure V will bring in around $11 million per year—not enough to meet every need, much less make every dream come true.
Residents will decide how the money is spent through community meetings and round-table discussions. Caballero and other community leaders hope that what Salinas gains first is all that it’s lost in recent years.
And maybe, just maybe, there’ll be some money to do things that city leaders only dare dream about.
IMAGINE A PLACE TO PLAY
There was a time, way back in 2002, when the city’s six recreation centers were bustling hubs of enthusiasm. Together, the centers were visited 600,000 times a year by kids all around the city. That all ended in 2004, when four rec centers—Closter Park, El Dorado Park, Central Park and Hebbron Heights—were closed.
Salinas Police Chief Dan Ortega worries about where those children are now.
“After-school programs are at the heart of keeping children connected and out of trouble,” he says. “Without them, kids are idle. And sometimes idle kids get into trouble.
“I pray that they’re OK out there, and I can’t help but wonder what they’re doing now that they don’t have a place to go.”
But in the reincarnated Salinas, children in those four north and east Salinas communities will have a place to go. They will once again play basketball, volleyball, flag football, soccer, hang out with friends over a game of Monopoly and chomp on healthy snacks.
Back in the day, rec centers also had areas set aside for teens. The kids would pop in on weekends or after school to do homework, gather with friends, create art projects, listen to music, and plan trips to faraway places.
“All summer long, we had theme weeks,” says Efrain Serrano, the city’s recreation coordinator. “We would take youth trips to Disneyland, Raging Waters, Great America, the Boardwalk. The City would absorb some of the cost, and kids would pitch in a little.”
A trip to Great America, for instance, with transportation and chaperones and tickets, would cost a kid just $50; normally the admission price alone is $49.99.
If Measure V becomes a reality, those trips will once again
be part of Salinas.
IMAGINE CHILD CARE AND DANCE
Say a kid wants to stay in town in the new Salinas and play with mom or dad at the rec center. But then there’s that little toddler sibling who needs a nap. No problem. The Bread Box Recreation Center on North Sanborn and Laurel Drive in East Salinas used to have a daycare center and will again. While Junior is off napping, older kids can join the chess club, use the weight gym, or take arts and crafts.
Girls and boys must miss tumbling on mats and swinging from bars in the gymnastics classes they used to have at a variety of rec centers citywide. There’s just one left now, at the Sherwood Community Center.
But what a welcome sound the grunts of kids learning karate will be when they’re once again part of a community that grows and thrives together, giving kids opportunity and diversion.
One of the most anticipated returns will be that of baile foklorico, a Mexican folklore dance class run by Marcela Gonzalez.
“The kids loved that group,” Serrano remembers. It drew some 40 to 50 kids per class, twice a week. Gonzalez is gone now, but Serrano says the kids are still waiting, eager to don their pretty dresses and handsome suits and take to the stage.
Kids aren’t the only ones who benefited from the city’s rec centers. Serrano says seniors had their own private place, too. While seniors still enjoy two tai chi classes a week at the community center, it wasn’t always so limited. There was a day when seniors got up and dressed and headed down to the center for group exercise, a game of bingo, a nice meal, or just to mingle with friends.
“That was a real social experience for them,” Serrano says.
But the word “was” is so passé in the new town. Grandma and
Grandpa should dig out those walking shoes, put on that hat, a
touch of cologne, and head on over to the reopened community
centers. Go early; bingo’s hot. There may just be a
IMAGINE EXCELLENT CITY SERVICES
Suffering from $15 million in budget cuts, the City has cut 123 positions, including firefighters, maintenance crews, administrative staff and police officers.
Caballero says the long-term lack of city services—from trimming trees and removing weeds to mowing parks and keeping streets and gutters clean—has created a mess that will require time and money to repair.
But it will happen. And then streets in Salinas—like North Davis Road at Westridge, with its overgrown weeds and trash-littered median—will all look like the newly-paved Maryal Drive near the Boys and Girls Club, or the perfectly manicured Independence Drive.
Some portions of East Salinas have never had streetlights.
“It was always the plan,” Caballero says, “but then we couldn’t afford it.”
In the new city, though, every Salinas street that needs it—including the Alisal area—will be well-lit. Dilapidated sidewalks, like the undulating mess of Los Gatos Way, with enough lumps and bumps to trip up an Olympic hurdler, will be level. No more seven-year waiting lists for lifting concrete.
No more vain attempts to get a city worker to fill a pothole the size of a small child, like those along John Street near the Highway 101 onramp.
The city’s sights will be bountiful, beautiful, artistic
even—murals perhaps, painted by urban artistes. But not gang
graffiti. That will be abated as soon as it happens, and no
more will the city’s thousands of gang members be marking
their territories like wild dogs pouring out their bad blood
with death wishes on every street corner, stop sign and park
bench. No. The park benches are for sweet elderly couples and
lovey-dovey teens practicing PDA. There’s no place for that
gang-graffiti nonsense in the new Salinas.
IMAGINE PAYING OUR LEADERS
The Salinas Valley Taxpayers Union, which is firmly opposed to Measure V, insists Salinas’ fiscal crisis is “fake” and even goes so far as to say tax dollars are spent on “lavish pay and benefit raises for [councilmembers].”
It’s hard to imagine how the part-time councilmembers, who each make a whopping $400 a month, or the part-time mayor, who gets an extra $200 a month, are profiting.
Caballero juggles her mayoral position with her full-time job as executive director of Partners For Peace, a nonprofit gang-intervention program. Her city calendar and to-do lists have been relegated to 4 by 6 inch note cards. She has no staff, save one overworked city employee who does field her calls during the day, sorts through the mail, answers letters and books appointments.
“At some point, [the position of mayor] is going to have to be a full-time job. There’s just too much to do part-time,” Caballero says.
But flashcards, a skeleton staff and taking formal meetings
at Starbucks will be a thing of the past. Imagine a new,
high-tech, well-connected mayor working full-time, traveling
by city buses to visit area schoolchildren and their
after-school games, all the while tapped in with her
Bluetooth-enabled Palm One Treo 650. She’ll have wireless
Internet access on the fly, take meetings in her
well-appointed office, and have a support staff to help keep
track of the goings-on in the county’s seat.
IMAGINE PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION
At roughly 19 square miles, Salinas is a big city to traverse. With just seven buses with limited stops to travel the city, residents often find themselves in a quandary about how to get to the grocery store, movie theaters, or to and from school and work. With a little more cash on its side, bus service city-wide can be dramatically increased, serving the majority of residents who travel fewer than 10 miles round-trip to and from their place of employment.
“It adds to a quality of life families look for in a
community,” Caballero says. “People want to live in a place
where they’re near their children’s schools, close to home,
where they can interact with the community, and get around
town with relative ease.”
IMAGINE SAFER STREETS
Buses may result in some decrease in traffic, but there will still be a need for school crossing guards. These are kids, after all, walking to school and getting there across some pretty major streets.
Take McKinnon Elementary school, for example, smack dab in the middle of ag fields on Boronda Road. The two-lane road is the only logical route to and from Highway 101 for huge communities like Harden Ranch, Creekbridge and the newly-developed areas of northeast Salinas.
The kindergarten-through-fifth graders have to cross that thoroughfare at 7:30am, when most folks are headed to work.
While most school districts within the city have rallied the help of parents or teachers to lend a hand at crossing times, there’s nothing like the official guard’s commanding uniform, keen eye, and big red “Stop” sign.
With a well-funded school crossing guard program, kids
could once again stand at street corners, gossiping with
friends and comparing outfits, waiting for the trustworthy
blow of a guard’s whistle. Demerits will still be issued for
IMAGINE ACTIVE NEIGHBORHOODS
Somewhere, lost in the hubbub of dreams versus budget cuts, was a council plan: neighborhood meetings in six different locations throughout the city, headed up by the council representative for that part of town.
“We have a book called a Neighborhood Problem Solver. It’s ‘Here’s things you can do to resolve them,’” Caballero says, “like cleanup, neighborhood watch, code enforcement issues.
“It was a plan to bring people together. Let’s bring people in from public works, the police department, let them help communities solve the problems within their neighborhoods too. It’s true outreach and empowers residents to take control of what happens within the blocks around their homes.”
A half-cent increase in sales tax could help make the
long-stalled plan a reality.
IMAGINE OLDTOWN THRIVING
Money can help the city build a sense of community. It’s bad enough there is no longer any money for a holiday light parade. The Independence Day parade was the next to go. But then, in what some considered a move just short of sacrilege, the City was forced to nix its annual Fourth of July fireworks show at the Salinas Sports Complex last year. Now, residents must trek to the foggy coast, or to the illegal fireworks shows in Castroville—which can be entertaining for sure, but are kind of hard to explain to the kids.
The new Salinas will restore its holiday fireworks and parades and reinvest in itself. Perhaps it’ll begin by reinventing its weekly Oldtown Farmers Market, a place where residents could mingle with neighbors, buy flowers and homegrown produce, funky tie-dyed T-shirts and sparkly handmade jewelry while strolling along to live music.
Maybe shoppers will pass the old Fox Theater along the way, and pick up a flyer for the night’s stage production. They could do something like that because the City would have the money to help the struggling occupant, the Paper Wing Theater. Children will remake Annie, and adults will vie for the lead in West Side Story.
Perhaps the City will go so far as to create a family recreation center in a newly constructed plaza—Caballero has such dreams for the downtown area. Families can catch a matinee at the Fox, then head over to the center for laser tag, miniature golf, go-cart races, or life-size chess.
When they’re finished there, they’ll ride home on one of
the many well-lit bike paths, or stay in town a bit longer to
join the walking group of residents and gallery owners for a
regular art walk.
IMAGINE A SAFER SALINAS
None of this is too difficult to imagine, but none of the ideas get very far without a rudimentary necessity too blatant to be ignored: crime prevention.
As it stands, the city is authorized to have 182 sworn officers. There are 25 positions technically vacant, though there are some candidates presently going through the hiring process, which can take six months to a year. That leaves the city with just 157 officers, fewer than one officer per 1,000 residents. Never in recorded history has the city been so short-staffed.
Crime continues to rise. Salinas has averaged some 16 murders each year for the past 10 years. The community repeatedly exceeds the national average in violent crime rates. The residents of the entire community become victims.
“When there’s an issue of crime and violence in a particular community like Salinas, it impacts the economic vitality of that community,” Ortega says. “People don’t come out, so they don’t spend money, so there’s no tax revenue. And if there’s someone out there looking to go into business, they take one look at statistics and look for someplace else to set up.
“This is not a police problem, it’s a social problem, and more particularly, a community problem.”
Ortega says in the perfect scenario, instead of filling just the 25 vacancies he has, he would love to make the number 30 or 40.
And the days of officers being forced to use their cell phones to reach one another will be gone.
With communication flowing and a full staff, a call to 911 will actually be responded to forthwith, a problem Ortega says is among the first in a long list of fixes.
With all those new cops and their new-fangled equipment on the street, and responding to each call here and now, cops will need new cars.
The opportunity to retire some of the sad-looking, well-worn cars is a welcome thought to Caballero.
“I listen to Homeland Security talk about what cities need, and I have to laugh. I’m here to tell you: We don’t need gas masks, we need patrol cars.”
But not all 225 officers in the perfect scheme will be behind the wheel of a patrol car. Some will patrol on bikes, cruising neighborhoods. It’ll help cops interact better with the community.
The well-funded city will also have horse patrols for huge parks, like Natividad Creek. They’ll mosey along through family barbecues, duck volleyballs now and then, and help neighbors feel safe while their gang task force counterparts clean up.
School resource officers, who used to have an impressive presence on school campuses citywide, have dwindled down to two and have to split their time among North Salinas, Alisal, Salinas, and Everett Alvarez High Schools.
“Right now we’re all about violence suppression,” Ortega
says. “That’s not enough. If we don’t also have the vehicles
for prevention and intervention, the cycle of violence and
crime never ends. We have to reach deeper, into communities
and at the elementary level, at the family level.”
IMAGINE OPEN LIBRARIES
There is no question that at the heart of Measure V, and at the top of everyone’s list, are the city’s three libraries: Steinbeck, Cesar Chavez, and El Gabilan.
Each of the three libraries would be closed today if not for the car washes, golf winnings, allowances, private donors, San Quentin inmates, rubber bracelets, and countless other community efforts conducted as part of Rally Salinas!, which raised money to keep the libraries open on limited schedules and staffing through December.
To date, the fund has raised just over $800,000, and the libraries continue to hobble along. Come Dec. 31, the money will be gone, and libraries will close.
But if Measure V passes and the community comes together for a roundtable, it’s likely that the libraries will be reinstated and reopened.
At a huge block party held at a place like the John Steinbeck Library, councilmembers will ceremoniously reopen all three of its libraries. Then, when ceremony turns to reality, every library will be open simultaneously morning, noon and night, returning to normal hours. Library managers will reinstate the number of employees to a healthy 34 in the system.
Every monitor in the computer lab will find residents
surfing the Internet, engaging in research, or chatting with
friends. Children will attend reading hours and literacy
classes, the online card catalogs will be updated with new
best-sellers and more books on CD, including John Steinbeck
classics. In quiet rooms, children will learn to play
Scrabble, or Candyland, or just rest on Mom’s lap while she
reads. In the newly-funded community, there will be a time and
a place for that.
IMAGINE BELIEVING IN A DREAM
Caballero is guardedly optimistic that Measure V will pass. Even still, she can’t seem to bring herself to go too far out on a limb, dreaming of what could be if it does.
Every time she reaches outside of her fiscal straight jacket, imagining a jazz club downtown, for instance, where she and residents might have fun on a random Saturday night out, she seems to shake her head at herself and come back down to fundamental needs like clean gutters and weed abatement.
The $11 million that a half-cent sales tax will put in the city’s coffers would not be enough to make everything described here happen—but it would be a start. And it could get the momentum going.
Salinas, Caballero admits, is a city at a real crossroads, and this is no time for her to stop being a realist.
“As I look into the crystal ball, even if Measure V passes,
I know that there’s nothing to indicate that in the next five
years we’ll have millions and millions of dollars flooding
into the city. And we certainly can’t budget on faith,” she
says. “But there’s all kinds of things that are possible. All
it takes is money.”