WATSONVILLE—The Watsonville City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a biennial budget that will keep Watsonville Police Department’s staffing at current levels, and invest roughly $7.5 million into a rebuild of Ramsay Park.
The decision came after two dozen people at the virtual meeting echoed a petition with more than 400 signees calling for the City Council to trim the police department’s $20.2 million budget by $4.3 million. That move would have forced the city to lay off about 25 WPD employees, according to Administrative Services Department Director Cindy Czerwin.
It would have also meant, according to the demands listed in the petition submitted by a handful of Central Coast community-based organizations, the reinvestment of that funding in the city’s parks and public works departments and the start of a youth employment program.
“We’re asking you [to] reallocate, reimagine these budgets,” said Gabriel Medina, a Watsonville-based filmmaker.
The calls to trim WPD’s budget are not new. Last year, the City Council faced similar demands but decided to mostly keep the department whole—aside from a few pandemic-related hiring freezes. As they did on June 8, public speakers at Tuesday’s meeting said that investing nearly half of the city’s $46 million general fund into the police department would not address the root cause of crime and that public safety was more than just policing.
But council members said that the community’s voice did shine through in the approved budget, pointing to the multi-million-dollar rebuild of Sotomayor Soccer Field and the preparation of other projects at Ramsay Park.
Though the City Council did not implement any of the plans listed in the petition, several council members did say that they agreed with much of what was written in it. That included investments in the city’s library and the parks departments.
“Let’s not let parks and recs funding drop anymore,” Councilman Francisco “Paco” Estrada said. “Let’s just keep adding to it year after year after year. Same with the library … Maybe after one budget process this might not be impressive, but maybe after five budget processes, after a decade of budget processes, everything adds up. That’s how we start building community again.”
Mayor Jimmy Dutra and City Councilwoman Rebecca J. Garcia said they wanted to hold off any changes to the police department’s budget until the city’s Ad-Hoc Committee on Policing and Social Equity makes a recommendation to the City Council in the fall. That committee—made up of 12 Watsonville residents, one police officer and three City Council members—has been meeting in various formats over the past seven months to explore WPD’s connection with the community it serves.
The city will increase WPD’s budget by 7%, or roughly $1.3 million, from the last fiscal year. The next fiscal year, the department’s budget will rise by $862,838. According to Czerwin, that rise is a result of increasing retirement and salary costs.
The second-largest department paid for by the general fund is the Fire Department ($7.95M) and the third is Parks and Community Services Department ($5.2M).
Parks is seeing the second-biggest increase, percentage-wise, of any department. That increase includes the addition of a community engagement and events supervisor and the inclusion of two Environmental Science Workshop employees that were previously paid through another fund.
In all, the parks budget will be roughly a million dollars higher than pre-pandemic levels.
The largest percentage increase from last year’s budget comes in the Community Development Department ($2.9M). That roughly $1 million expansion was implemented over the course of the last year as the demand on the department did not slow down despite the pandemic.
Many of those who spoke during Tuesday’s meeting talked about their ties to Watsonville, and how the community was there for them through their struggles. One caller fought back tears while she spoke about her family’s financial plight during her childhood.
“It was my community that helped when we were struggling,” she said. “I’m here today to remind you why you’re there.”
The day before the meeting, MILPA, a Salinas-based organization, led a press conference in the City Plaza to drum up support for the petition, and the reallocation of funds from the police department. About two dozen people showed up to share stories, and talk about the need for police and budget reform.
Organizer Cesar Lara, who also serves as the Executive Director of the Monterey Bay Labor Council, said that no matter how the Watsonville City Council voted on Tuesday, the movement started over the past year after the murder of George Floyd would continue.
“This is going to be a multi-year campaign,” he said. “It’s not going to change in one month. But the important thing is we’re not going away.”