Santa Ana city officials have long struggled to be responsible stewards of public money — and with many of the decisions they’ve made this year, they seem to only be moving further away from that basic expectation.
In July, the Santa Ana City Council approved a $510.7 million budget packed with add-ons and reliant on one-time funding. The following month its members approved the first city-wide project labor agreement in Orange County, a union giveaway expected to add millions of dollars in avoidable costs to city multi-trade construction and specialty contracts.
In line with this pattern of fiscal irresponsibility, on Nov. 7 the council voted 5-1 to play Santa Claus with public money and agreed to pull $1 million from the city’s reserves to purchase a digital billboard for the Santa Ana Auto Mall to satisfy the auto dealerships, who said they wanted a digital sign like those in Anaheim, Irvine and Tustin.
Rather than use their own money to make themselves more competitive, which is how free enterprise is supposed to work, the dealerships appealed to city officials, who promptly rolled over, seeing an opportunity for potentially greater tax revenues long-term.
“I see this as an opportunity for economic development, for public-private partnership as well,” Councilman David Benavides said, expressing enthusiasm for the pernicious idea that it’s necessary for the government to selectively prop up private businesses with public dollars.
Only Councilwoman Michele Martinez saw a problem with what the council was doing. “Typically, reserves are used for emergencies,” she said at the meeting. “For whatever reason, we decided to take it out of there. When there is a major catastrophe, we need to make sure we have those funds available.”
Yet, city leaders have decided to take out money meant for emergencies to engage in crony capitalism out of the hope that a $1 million digital billboard will yield more tax dollars for them to burn through in the future.
Santa Ana cannot continue down this trajectory and expect long-term fiscal stability. It must budget within its means, use reserves as intended and not spend any more than necessary to provide services to the public.