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'We need help': As concerns about crime, homelessness mount, Lompoc leaders point to lack of funds, staff

'We need help': As concerns about crime, homelessness mount, Lompoc leaders point to lack of funds, staff

From the 2019's Best: Collection of the top stories of the year on series

When staffers arrived at Lompoc’s Peace Lutheran Church on the morning of June 6, they were startled by what they found.

A homeless woman was in a deep sleep on one of the church’s pews, and the evidence of her activities over the course of the night was as clear as it was unexplainable.

The woman allegedly broke two windows to gain entry to the building and then drank or otherwise disposed of four bottles of communion wine, splattered red paint throughout a restroom, scattered pencils about, left a piano cover in the church garden, and relocated several church items — including a candelabra and religious cloths, some of them stained — to an outdoor area, where she had also left several lighters.

“She could’ve burned down the building, but she didn’t — thank God,” said Kim Martin, the church’s secretary.

That was one of three break-ins documented this year at the church, which isn’t alone.

Several Lompoc residents and representatives of businesses and other agencies have reported a growing problem with the homeless loitering or vandalizing private properties, including accusations of some people using yards, alleys and entryways as public restrooms. That has coincided with a citywide uptick this year in violent crime, evidenced by five homicides and more than 30 reported shootings in the first seven months of 2019.

While those issues are raising health and safety concerns for many in and around the Lompoc Valley, the city’s new police chief said his department is doing its best, but that a lack of funding and staffing have severely limited what police can do.

“I have to make choices, and ultimately our responsibility is to provide two very basic functions before we do anything else, and that’s to respond to calls for service when people call us, and No. 2, to investigate crimes,” said Lompoc Police Chief Joe Mariani, who was sworn into office in February. “So, all of our additional functions that we were once dealing with — community services, traffic, narcotics, gang enforcement — have all been put to rest because of our staffing limitations.

“We are primarily reactive,” he added. “We try to be proactive, but in all honesty, we’ve been relegated to a reactive role. We do an exceptional job, but I would like to venture to think about what we could do if we had the people.”

Riverbed effect

Though a direct link has not been established, many within the city view the clean-up of the Santa Ynez Riverbed, which began last summer and concluded in January, as one of the primary catalysts for the rise in petty crimes involving people who are homeless.

The riverbed that runs along the eastern and northern borders of the city had for years been home to many people in the Lompoc area who were otherwise homeless. The city evicted all riverbed inhabitants last year and oversaw the removal of a reported 462 tons — or more than 924,000 pounds — of trash from the waterway, including about 500 pounds of human waste.

That effort cost the city more than $423,000.

While that clean-up was deemed necessary from a public health perspective, its effectiveness a year later is a topic of debate.

Not only is the city seeing more loitering and other crimes associated with homelessness, but Mariani acknowledged that some people have already begun rebuilding campsites in the riverbed and that the police department doesn’t have the funds to continuously monitor the area like it had initially planned.

“Eventually it’ll get back to that [pre-cleanup] level again unless we do something,” he said.

Martin, the secretary at Peace Lutheran, noted that this year’s criminal activity at the church is unlike any she has seen in her three years working there.

The most recent break-in, she said, was this past weekend when someone apparently made their way into the building at some point Saturday night or early Sunday morning and stole thousands of dollars’ worth of electronics, including a TV and the stand that it had been left on.

Martin said it has made her job “a lot more stressful.”

“I didn’t really used to have a problem with it and other people always worried about me, and I was like, ‘I’m fine; it’s not a problem,’ but now I have to file insurance claim after insurance claim and I never really know who’s going to be here [in the morning],” she said. “There could be one, two, three people sleeping here any given day.”

Rise in violence

The rise in violence in Lompoc has been one of the most frequent topics of discussion at city meetings this year.

The 74-year-old Lompoc woman killed earlier this month is being remembered by friends as a "free spirit" with a spark for life, and a community activist with a passion for progressive causes. Eldri Jauch was an avid outdoorswoman known to frequent Santa Barbara County's open spaces and play the violin at the weekly farmers market. When not walking Surf Beach or hiking around the area, she spoke out against abuse, advocated on behalf of Lompoc's LGBT population and participated in interfaith initiatives in an attempt to make her community a better, more inclusive place.

Mariani took office just days before a 17-year-old girl was gunned down in a drive-by in which police believe she was an innocent bystander. Mariani nearly broke down in tears while addressing the crime at his public, unofficial, swearing-in ceremony a day after the shooting.

No arrests have been made in that case, nor have any been made in the most recent homicide — a shooting late in the night of June 30 that took the life of De’Andre Valrie in the early-morning hours of July 1. Valrie, who would have turned 26 years old on July 6, was killed right in front of his home.

While city leaders point to an increase in funding and more officers as being greatly needed to address the violence, other residents have suggested that the community itself should shoulder some of the burden.

Some community members addressed the Lompoc City Council during a March 9 goal-setting workshop to ask that the city do more to provide positive opportunities for youth, which could in turn lead fewer children into gangs or other lives of crime.

Local resident Thomas Brandenberg echoed those sentiments this month, after what he described as the “appalling” murder of Valrie.

“If you’ve got nothing for young people to do, then you’ve got these problems,” he said. “And they’re social problems. If you don’t have something that’ll give you hope for the future, then you’re in bad shape.”

Brandenberg, who previously offered free rides to disadvantaged community members through his now-defunct “A Little Help” service and also launched the annual “Unity in the Community” events in 2016 to promote togetherness, said the issues go well beyond police.

He said he’s working to establish a music school to get kids off the streets — he is soliciting funding and looking for a building — and is hopeful that local faith leaders will lead the way in bringing Lompoc together. Ideally, he said, local black, white and Hispanic church leaders will come together and show that Lompoc can be united as one community.

“We’ve got to do something to solve this problem,” he said.

“If you’ve got people coming together and eating together and being happy, then we’ve got a chance,” he added. “But if we’ve got people fighting … and shooting each other, we’re doing exactly what the drug pushers want.”

Mariani said he’d like to have the police department involved in those types of outreach efforts.

“There’s a lot of good intentions, but ultimately the resources aren’t there to carry out those functions,” he said.

Going forward

Both Mariani and Lompoc City Manager Jim Throop point to a need for increased revenue in order for things to improve.

The 2019-21 biennial budget that was approved by the City Council last month allocates 44 positions for the Lompoc Police Department, the same as the previous budget cycle. Currently, the department has just 35 officers — the department’s lowest total since the 1980s, according to Mariani — and Mariani said it will be a challenge to reach that maximum.

Other neighboring agencies, he said, are offering higher salaries and even signing bonuses, plus he said the process to become an officer is not a simple one.

The Lompoc Police Department will test potential candidates on July 27. At a recent testing event, Mariani said 23 candidates participated but just two were considered viable.

“That continues to be our problem,” the chief said. “We’re actively recruiting, we’re trying to hire and that’s been my message to the public — to encourage young and viable candidates to consider a career with the Lompoc Police Department. But, in all honesty, the other challenge for us is that we’re competing with neighboring agencies that are paying substantially more and are providing signing bonuses.”

Both Throop and Mariani see a potential 1% sales tax increase as a way to generate more revenue and revitalize the city’s public safety departments.

The sales tax hike was proposed by Throop during this year’s budget deliberations but was ultimately rejected by the City Council majority as part of this budget cycle. The council, however, has agreed to discuss the matter at a future date that has yet to be determined.

Any increase in sales tax would have to be approved by voters.

“We don’t have enough revenue coming in to meet the requirements of the whole city,” Throop said. “Without any changes, the next budget cycle two years from now would continue these reductions and most likely, unless there’s something I don’t know about, would require more reductions on top of the current reductions. It digs in deeper and deeper each time.”

Throop said the sales tax increase wouldn’t be a “cure-all,” but he said it would “allow us to at least catch our breath and maintain the level we’re at now while we try to improve areas of possible revenue.”

Those other areas of possible revenue, he said, include expansion of the city's borders, which would widen the city's tax base.

Both Throop and Mariani said the city is doing what it can, but that it needs assistance from the state and/or federal government to address multi-faceted issues like homelessness.

Throop said he encourages residents to contact the city with concerns, but to not stop there.

“I would say call your county supervisor, call your state legislative person, your congressman and your state senator and tell them our little town can’t handle this, we need help with this,” he said. “If it comes just from the city [employees] that’s one thing, but if they start to see it more and more from the constituency out there calling all of these things out, that helps us down the road getting more traction to move forward.”

Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.


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