On a typical night at 7 p.m., the corner of Barson and Clay streets in Santa Cruz’s lower Ocean neighborhood is not the safest place.
Last Wednesday, though, the neighborhood had a different vibe, as the organization Neighbors of Santa Cruz gathered approximately 25 people to do a walk-through of the lower Ocean area and make the community aware of changes implemented by the organization to make the neighborhood a safer one. Neighbors of Santa Cruz is a citywide non-profit organization that represents a network of neighborhoods and provides a voice for the residents of the city.
As he led the group around the neighborhood, Erik Larsen, who helped found the group, explained that the area used to be a center for drug-related crime and prostitution. By taking landlords to small claims court, they forced them to clean up and watch their properties. In addition, city officials closed a local bar that was plagued by gang activity.
The event was in support of Measure H, which addresses public safety in Santa Cruz. The measure, which emerged during the recent summer months and will be on the November ballot, intends to increase the city utility tax by 1.5 percent and use the revenue to fund public safety. The funds will go primarily toward supporting the police department and prevention of gang-related crime.
“There is now less money and more crime, and we are trying to level it off,” said city councilmember Don Lane, who supports Measure H. “We can either have a barebones police department that gets a call and works the crime, or have the funding to increase police forces and prevent crime activity in the first place, through providing alternatives for youth, for example.”
In the past two weeks alone, there have been several shootings in and around the city. Although the circumstances were not clear, a shooting was reported on Woodrow Avenue and Walk Circle, in the lower Westside area of town. According to witnesses, it involved a man opening fire on a group of people sitting on a porch. Additionally, this past weekend, three shootings occurred.One man was left dead and two were wounded.
In addition to the mitigation of rising crime, proponents of the measure cite its attention to economically vulnerable citizens and seniors as a positive factor. The measure affords these groups the chance to dismiss the first $34 to $100 off their utilities bill depending on need.
To be passed, Measure H must receive a 50 percent plus one majority vote, which means the revenue from the measure would go into the city’s general fund as opposed to a fund that is set aside for one particular purpose.
This leaves some residents of the city worried. According to its website, the Santa Cruz County Republican Central Committee opposes tax increases that cannot be clearly justified by need and appointed to the correct area. The group said that Measure H does not meet the minimum standard, and fears it will not be spent in the appropriate areas.
Furthermore, the increase in utility tax could very easily be a discouraging factor in an economically challenging time, and some see it as as oppressive.
Don Webber, a longtime community activist from the beach area, does not view this as a threat or problem.
“Public safety is already a major part of our general fund expenditures, and the city leaders have resolved to use the Prop H proceeds for police staffing. I trust them to do so,” Webber said. “[But] with the nation in a tea party tizzy, it will be hard enough to get over the 50-percent threshold to pass a general fund tax measure, let alone the super-majority necessary to pass a tax restricted to a specific use. The city is right to run this through the general fund.”
Erik Larsen of Santa Cruz Neighbors said that in addition to a grassroots approach to crime mitigation, revenue from this fund is the best way forward for Santa Cruz.
“Crime-related activity can be zeroed down, [and] door to door communication is the essence of neighborhood organizing,” he said.
As for the increase in utility taxes, those supporting it claim that this would be a small sacrifice. The slogan of Measure H simply reads: “More than a utility. A necessity.”