Merced County Times Newspaper
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A word or two about priorities in the City of Merced

Against the Wind: A Column by Jonathan Whitaker

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On the evening of June 3, back when the Merced City Council was still working on the final details of the budget for the new fiscal year, members of the NAACP gave a presentation about summer youth programs at McNamara Park, and improving attendance there by fostering a safe and welcoming atmosphere.

Allen Brooks, the NAACP president, announced his organization was teaming up with youth mentor Kelly Turner to offer young children more education opportunities that were accessible to families in low-income households.

Tamara Cobb, the education chair of the NAACP, pointed out that some families — especially those in low-income households with more than one child — are unable afford programming at the local Boys & Girls Club.

She then noted that African American children are 3.9 percent of the population in Merced; however, they account for 9.98 percent of the suspensions and expulsions at local schools.

“We have three schools on the red zone list,” Cobb said. “They have been ID’d, and if they don’t improve student academics and decrease the suspension rate, the state will start to fine them and take programs away.”

She added, “We just want to help our students that are behind.”

Turner, who has been running a small mentorship program inside the park’s community facility urged city leaders to support the “South Side.”

“How do we work together to change the reputation of the McNamara Youth Center and the park?” she asked. “Leadership needs to get more involved and help change the dynamics.”

Realtor and former mayor candidate, Necola Adams, was also in the group presenting their case. She added that she has been working on an afterschool program called “4-H High” that would cater to teens, 13 to 17, who are not interested in joining competitive sports teams. Adams wants to offer them projects at McNamara that involve mathematics, computer coding, app creation, music and leadership skills.

“We want a safe place for teens to go, gain positive experiences, and keep them out of trouble,” she said.

Nut Festival

I have to veer to something else for just a moment because I promised Necola Adams I would mention the city’s first-ever Nut Festival that she is organizing. The event to promote local agriculture and community identity will be held in downtown Merced on Oct. 26 — the last Saturday of the month. She said she is still fundraising for the event, and has received support from the United Way and the Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce.

Back to priorities…

So about an hour later, at the same June 3 meeting, the city took up budget talks and gave an overview of priorities that will guide them into 2020. Traditionally, the city holds budget priority-setting workshops after each new year, and then leaders attempt to insert at least their top priorities into the upcoming fiscal budget, in some way.

I think most will agree that it’s relatively easy to come up with a nice-sized list of “good ideas” to improve the community.

The difficulty comes when they attempt to narrow down the list, choose where they want to direct funding, and how much of the city’s money they are willing to spend.

The overall priority themes of the new budget include: Staffing, Youth Programs, City Beautification, Local Streets, Future Planning, Downtown, Regional Transportation / Measure V Projects, Homelessness, Charter Review / Ballot Initiatives, Community Wellness, and Agency Partnerships.

There are plenty of items and issues that fall into those categories. The 2019-20 budget is available for viewing on the city’s website.

Nevertheless, City Manager Steve Carrigan did get specific on “projects we are working on, but they just haven’t bubbled to the top.”

And he added, “We haven’t got them across the finish line, and I didn’t want anybody wondering where we are at on some of these things.”

  • Youth / recreation funding — Last year, Merced voters approved Measure Y, a tax on cannabis business operators to create funding for Merced’s police, fire, parks and recreation services. So far, not a single cannabis business has opened up its doors in Merced. According to Carrigan, Measure Y money won’t show up until next year’s budget. If those businesses start to open up in the fall, funds would become available about a year to 18 months later.
  • New youth / community center at old fire facility at 27th and K streets, central Merced — This is about a $30,000 to $35,000 project that involves planning and startup costs worked into budget during some final General Fund maneuvering.
  • Support for the zoo — Besides city operational support and partnership with the Zoological Society, Carrigan mentioned new security enhancements and a private volunteer effort to remodel significant portions of the zoo.
  • Substandard properties program — Carrigan said there’s a lot going on behind the scenes to bring private housing and buildings up to code, and hold landlords accountable. He expects an update on the effort in early fall.
  • Welcome signs — The City Council appears to have narrowed down locations for the first installment of new “Welcome To Merced” signs: Northbound Hwy. 99 at Mission overpass, and Southbound Highway 99 at 16th St. entrance. A downtown arch is being considered for a new community extension of Bob Hart Square, but I think that’s still under debate. The city’s Arts Council was to weigh in on sign designs.
  • Police station/ bond measure efforts/Charter Review Committee — Carrigan has since said that staff is working with a consultant on a “needs assessment” and other planning. Another consultant is working on one or two possible 2020 ballot measures that would fund public safety needs. Updates on these items could come as soon as August. Meanwhile, changes to the City Charter — including an extension of the mayoral term — are expected to make the voter ballot for the March primary.
  • Quiet zone study — Regarding a citizen-initiated effort to reduce the amount of train noise in the city, and improve safety near railroad crossings, Carrigan says a draft report involving the “pedestrian part” is complete. However, they are still working on the “auto side.” They are looking at improvements made in other valley cities. Most of this work appears to be safety related in order to prevent deaths like the recent tragic accident involving a Hoover School student walking home from school. It’s unclear if safety improvements will lead to an end of those horns that blast at all hours of the day and night.
Industrial development

What’s happening with potential industrial sites that leaders and staff prioritized last year?

Industrial development and job creation was the top priority of former City Councilman Michael Belluomini, and there was a significant amount of talk about it before his term ended in 2019. Belluomini argued that the city needs “shovel ready” industrial sites to draw in firms, and of course, more jobs in a city where unemployment is way higher than the state average.

Last September, the City Council prioritized the following potential industrial areas that should be developed:

  1. Area 7 — 1,267 acres west of Arboleda Road, between Highway 140 and Mission Ave.
  2. Area 6 — 700 acres west of 99 between Gerard Ave. and Vassar Ave.
  3. South Airport industrial area
  4. Area northwest of the intersection of 16th St. and Bear Creek

In a June letter to supporters, Belluomini wrote of this city prioritization: “Actual next steps such as contracting with a consultant to prepare and EIR for annexation, zone change and general plan amendment paid from the economic development reserve fund were not discussed. It has been nearly 10 months and no actions are apparent for following the council direction to staff.”

Parsons Avenue?

Come to think about it … Whatever happened to the Parsons Avenue expansion into a major north-south artery. If I remember correctly, the city bought several parcels of land, and there was a plan for a bridge over Bear Creek, despite the high cost.

Well, maybe we shouldn’t go there. Not right now.

How about this…

The Merced Sun Star reported a few weeks ago on the City of Merced losing a legal appeal and must pay out $9.5 million to the Merced County controller. The state Department of Finance said the city improperly spent about $9.5 million that should have been returned following the dissolution of its Redevelopment Agency in 2011.

According to the report, the city spent the money on building affordable housing in the Woodbridge project on Copper Avenue and Highway 59, and other projects. The decision to move ahead with the projects was made in early 2011. The city ended up spending $205,000 in legal fees in the case that followed.

To this, Mayor Mike Murphy was quoted as saying: “The cause of the dispute pre-dated anyone on the council today or anyone in the city manager’s office.”

Maybe so, but that didn’t stop Allen Brooks, president of the NAACP, and Fernando Aguilera, president of the Merced Soccer Academy, to shoot off a heated letter to the mayor and his colleagues on the council. They also sent me a copy.

The letter suggested that residents have been deprived of the lost money that could have been used for something good regarding young people in Merced.

“This $9.5 million is scheduled to be paid out of the city’s General Fund,” they wrote. “Both the Merced Soccer Academy and the NAACP do a tremendous amount of work in South Merced and have acknowledged the lack of city funding for our youth programs and facilities. … It is sad that the city feels no harm done for improperly spending money and felt no obligation to inform the public of their wrongdoing. Shame on our mayor and our city manager for not informing the public about this situation sooner. … It is our hope that you will not take it out on our youth programs and facilities for your improper spending of funds. Instead of taking ownership, you are passing the buck. Youth programs and facilities need your support.”

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