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Youth Shortchanged in Oxnard Budget, Critics Say

Finances: Police Department stands to get a 10% increase, while recreation would see only a 4% gain.

July 02, 2001|ROBIN SHULMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Plagued by gang violence and juvenile crime, Oxnard officials plan to pour millions more dollars into the Police Department--but at the cost of providing little new funding for youth programs.

The City Council is considering a fiscal 2001-02 budget that would allow police salary hikes totaling more than $2 million, but provide the Oxnard Recreation Department with no new youth services staff members or managers for youth volunteers.

"Certainly we support law enforcement," Mayor Manuel Lopez said. "Elected officials try to react to what they perceive the public wants," he added, noting that residents seem to want to see money pumped into law enforcement.

But critics say such priorities are misguided. The real solution to stemming juvenile crime are positive alternatives for young people, said lawyer Barbara Macri-Ortiz, who specializes in family and education cases.

"We don't place our resources in the areas where it could do the most good," Macri-Ortiz said. "We place them in the areas where we get the most attention."

In the proposed city budget, which the council is expected to approve at its July 10 meeting, police funding would increase next year by almost 10%, to $32 million, while recreation would be allocated slightly more than $4 million, up 4% from last year.

Oxnard's spending patterns are typical for municipalities in Ventura County and the rest of California, according to the League of California Cities.

Statewide, cities' median spending was 44% of the general fund for police departments and 10% for parks and recreation in 1997-98, the most recent year for which statistics are available. The proposed Oxnard budget is light on recreation spending, only 5%, but meets the average for police at 44%.

Oxnard expects to realize $5 million in new revenue from increased property tax and sales tax receipts and utility fees.

City administrators say the $72-million budget is similar to the one approved last year, except for extra money to cover rising energy costs and salary increases.

Almost all the money allocated to the Police Department will go to officers' salaries, which were renegotiated more than a year ago and are scheduled to rise to an average of $54,194 in January, said Jim Willis, budget manager at the Oxnard Police Department.

The department plans to hire two new police officers for assignment to schools, adding to the existing patrol of six school officers.

Meanwhile, the recreation department doesn't have the money to hire the kind of role models that don't carry a gun and a badge.

The proposed budget does not include $20,000 sought to hire an administrative assistant for City Corps, whose director and sole paid staffer requested help in managing about 1,000 youth volunteers a year.

Nor does the proposed budget allocate funds to replace a mobile activities van paid for through June by a three-year Department of Corrections grant; nor does it continue a partnership with a Healthy Start site previously backed by the state Department of Education.

The umpires, scorekeepers, class instructors and youth center directors who form much of the department's staff are part-time employees.

"We're maxed out," said Gil Ramirez, Oxnard's recreation director, of the possibility of expanding the city's sports leagues.

Despite budget restrictions, the recreation department operates three youth centers, scores of athletic teams and after-school programs. Channel Islands High School junior Henry Villa said he enjoys spending time at old Oxnard High School, site of a youth center that includes a video arcade, pool tables and after-school activities.

Henry said that if kids could find such activities closer to home, they would be more likely to stay out of trouble in their neighborhoods.

About 53% of Oxnard homes include at least one child under 18, up from 49% in 1990, according to the 2000 census. With surging numbers of young people come differing philosophies on how to keep kids out of trouble.

"Recreation always comes at the end of the priority list," said Ventura County Supervisor John Flynn, whose district includes Oxnard. "The injustice is [that] that's where we ought to be putting the money, so we wouldn't have to put so darn much into probation and the Sheriff's Department."

Carmen Flores, who runs the Challenge Resource Center, an alternative probation program, said many people feel unsafe around young people and consider police the best solution.

"Every police officer and probation officer would tell you [that] if we had our druthers we would rather have beautiful community centers for youth and families rather than have more probation officers and police officers," Flores said.

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