San Jose City Councilmembers on Tuesday narrowly voted to approve Mayor Sam Liccardo’s June budget message, despite criticism that it didn’t go far enough to address racial and economic inequities in the city.
The split vote marked the first time in recent history that nearly half the City Council voted against a mayor’s fiscal budget, which is historically unanimously approved. It also underscored an increasing rift on San Jose’s council, splitting councilors along racial, political and socio-economic lines.
Five councilors voted against Liccardo’s budget proposal, including his idea to implement an “equity screen” – a tool the mayor said could ensure funds are allocated to areas with the greatest needs. But the five lawmakers said it’s insufficient in addressing the needs of Silicon Valley’s impoverished districts.
The dissenting voters, Councilmembers Raul Peralez, Maya Esparza, Sergio Jimenez, Magdalena Carrasco and Sylvia Arenas, in April proposed the creation of a $500,000 equity fund to meet the needs of the city’s poorest and resource-scarce neighborhoods. They also held a news conference Monday pushing for more equity in the city budget.
When Liccardo released his June budget message earlier this month, he allocated $4 million to programs he felt fit the equity screen, relying mainly on data from the Social Progress Index and Government Alliance on Race and Equity. And while the City Council on Tuesday agreed on one thing – it needs to address San Jose’s history of inequity – opinions differed on how to accomplish it.
The five dissenting councilors voiced concern that the city had not yet developed a framework for the equity screen and instead advocated for the $500,000 equity fund.
“I don’t think we should subject anything to a screen that we don’t know what will entail,” Peralez said.
But Liccardo said he was not prepared to stall passing the budget Tuesday, and the council majority ultimately compromised to hold a study session to work toward developing the requested framework.
“We’re not going to get it right the first time,” Liccardo said. “We can start in this moment with $4 million.”
City Manager Dave Sykes said he wasn’t entirely sure how an equity fund would work.
“I think there is complete agreement that equity means something different to everyone,” he said. “We are interested and we see tremendous value in engaging in more learning.”
Esparza provided an example of inequity in Liccardo’s budget on Tuesday. She noted that funding for traffic calming measures was unfairly distributed across districts – giving the city’s most affluent neighborhoods the bulk of the money. She added that not all councilmembers submitted a proposal to fund traffic improvements, but that the money should be allocated based on need.
“We need to have a process that funds things based on need, not on whether you wanted to fund our budget document one year,” she said to the mayor.
Jimenez was one of many councilors that advocated for research first. He also said the topic, which saw over five hours of heated discussion, shouldn’t be a controversial one.
“It seems that most folks are in agreement that something must be done,” Jimenez said. “It’s about advocating not for our districts, but really advocating for all our residents.”
Still, Councilmembers Johnny Khamis and Lan Diep expressed concerns about how the equity fund would work.
“What I don’t want to do is to establish a preexisting fund to address something that we don’t know and make it so it only can be used for bureaucratic procedures,” Khamis said.
Diep acknowledged the collective council’s goal of finding some way to implement equity in future budgets.
“I’m not ready to proceed today with an equity fund. It is more a concern over a process, not the merits,” Diep said. “When I say process, I really mean money.”
This year councilors submitted 103 budget proposals to the mayor, totaling $41.3 million. They ranged from installing metal detectors in the council chambers to incentivizing the registration of home security cameras with the police department.
Councilmember Dev Davis – who voted for the mayor’s budget message – said City Hall needs to spend time and resources gathering data on how San Jose should address inequity.
“We are in desperate need of a study session because we’re having this discussion without a lot of background knowledge,” she said.
Full adoption of the 2019-2020 budget is scheduled to occur at the June 18 meeting.
Contact Grace Hase at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @grace_hase on Twitter.