There were several good news items scattered throughout the most recent budget update presented to the Watsonville City Council on Feb. 9. The city’s Administrative Services Director, Cindy Czerwin, predicted that the city would end the 2020-21 fiscal year about $5 million better than originally budgeted back in June 2020 and only slightly below prior years. This is because the city made some drastic budget cuts to various departments, trimming off more than $4 million in salaries, benefits and discretionary spending. It’s also a result of an uptick in online and local shopping that have buoyed sales tax revenues during our pandemic-stricken economy. Because of the stay-at-home orders and the unpredictable restrictions coming from the state, more people have been ordering their goods online—which provides municipalities with sales tax thanks to a recent court decision. They’ve also been shopping for their groceries and other goods locally, and ordering takeout at local restaurants instead of driving to Capitola, Santa Cruz, Monterey and other foodie hubs to spend their money.
For years the City Council has urged residents to shop local, and residents, in turn, have called for city government to live within its means. We’re getting a small snapshot of what that can mean for the city, and it’s a pretty nice picture. How long will this last? Well, that’s ultimately up to us. Czerwin predicted that at some point, things will settle back down. “People will start shopping elsewhere again,” she said during the meeting. There is truth to that. People are going to spend their money where and however they want to, and other cities have things that we do not. But I hope that we come away from this year of lockdowns with an appreciation for the local businesses that directly feed into the economy and community that we call home. We don’t always need to look outward to fit those needs and wants.
That wasn’t the only good news that came from the budget report. The city’s general fund balance, with the previous fiscal year squared away, is now at $16.5 million. What does that mean? Well, in short, it means that because the city started pinching its pennies in 2018, that it now has some funds in its piggy bank to cover some looming costs and/or fund some projects. Of course, that doesn’t mean that it has $16.5 million to burn. Those funds are about 35 percent above its operating expenditures—the city’s standard is a minimum general fund balance of 20 percent. I would imagine that those funds are going to be prioritized to offset rising retirement costs, an issue that nearly every city is struggling with. But there’s also the potential to use some of those funds to make a dent in several areas of the city that are in disrepair.
The City Council will determine how and when that money will be spent during budget hearings in June. Everyone will have an opinion of what to do with that cash. Here is mine: it’s time we completely overhaul Ramsay Park’s soccer fields.
Let’s look at some of the facts: The National Recreation Association standard for park space in a city is 10 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents. But Watsonville boasts only 2.25 acres per 1,000 residents. The city website says Watsonville has about 143 acres across its 26 parks. In comparison, Santa Cruz has more than 1,700 acres of park space.
Another fact: Watsonville’s obesity and diabetes rates are nearly double than that of Santa Cruz, according to data from datasharescc.org. Moreover, multiple studies have shown that physical activity is key to reducing rates of obesity and other chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and depression. Also, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a study found that cities with better park access and more park acreage were associated with more physically active residents. The same study said that “as cities work to promote health for all of their residents, the health contribution of their park systems should not be overlooked.”
According to the city’s Parks and Recreation Strategic Plan, it would take about $3.6 million to rebuild the field—including a new $600,000 lighting system. The money is finally there, and I know the support is, too, because of the number of emails and messages I’ve received since “tweeting” out the idea some weeks ago.
We all understand that we need more park space, especially with hundreds of new housing units slated to be built over the next three to five years. This one project at Ramsay Park is not going to wholly solve that issue—the city needs help from the county, state, school district, land trust and private investors to do that—but getting that field to be a beacon for the city’s top sport would be a step in the right direction. Our kids at Watsonville High School are constantly tops in the state, and are often nationally ranked. Kids at the youth soccer level also compete against the best the West Coast has to offer. We should have a soccer mecca for them. Let’s not blow this opportunity.
Tony Nuñez is the Managing Editor of the Pajaronian. Contact Nuñez at [email protected].