By WALSH, CASSADY & WALSH
If you are interested in the inner-workings of local government, or the reasoning behind certain decisions made on the second floor of the Civic Center, or if you just want to know when the city is going to install that long-awaited street light on your neighborhood corner — the current Merced Town Hall meetings are offering residents some insight and enlightenment.
Two of the meetings in the three-part series have already been held, one at the Multicultural Arts Center last week, and another at Cruickshank Middle School on Tuesday night. But there’s still one more left, on Thursday, Feb. 9, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., at Weaver Middle School, 3076 E. Childs Ave.
So far, the meetings have been well-attended with local residents, young and old, speaking up on a variety of topics. However, the Town Hall format also allows everyday citizens to meet one-on-one with city staff before the question and answer period. Each city department sets up a table so that staff can answer direct questions and hand out information.
More than 100 people attended the first meeting at the Arts Center, and of those, 11 individuals came to the podium. They ranged in age from senior citizens to young adults, representing themselves or community organizations.
The most frequently addressed topics were the following: the recent flood damage to Bear Creek; housing and the unhoused; Merced police; praise for all city staff who provided services during the flood and evacuations. Also mentioned were parking around the Merced Arts Center, elections, organic waste reduction, education, children’s right to play, city budget priorities, flood relief, a youth wellness center, planning for replacements for the Senior Center and the McCombs Youth Center, a city letter recently sent to the Attorney General, the future of Measure C, and the financial cost for all the requests people were making.
Here is some of the information provided by the City Council and city staff in response to questions.
- The damage to the bike path and banks of Bear Creek is being evaluated. The ground is still moving, so no plans can be established until it stops. Because the situation is still in flux, there is no timeline for beginning repairs.
- The City of Merced is doing everything it can to get displaced individuals and families back in their homes. City staff are working in partnership with FEMA and the County Office of Emergency Services to meet the needs of those who suffered losses and / or were misplaced by the flooding. City staff have been deployed to impacted communities and have gone door to door to see if people need help. The City of Merced staffed the Resource Center at the Fairgrounds.
- The City of Merced in partnership with Merced County Probation and Merced County Workforce Development are developing a center with wrap-around services for youth at Stephen Leonard Park. The services will include peer mentorship, mental health services, job training, and violence prevention programs.
- The City of Merced has provided financial support to local organizations serving the youth of our community including Play Adventures, the Mary Hofmann Teen Center being built at the Merced County Library, and the Kids Discovery Station. City facilities are also being leased by organizations serving the youth of Merced.
- The plan to install more diagonal parking on Main Street that will add several more parking spaces for those coming to do business or participate in activities downtown.
- The City of Merced is very involved with partners in the Continuum of Care in Merced County including the Merced County Human Services Agency in providing housing for the unhoused. This last fall Merced County HSA and the City of Merced and other partners were successful in finding housing for 116 unhoused children and their families in 100 days.
During the second Town Hall meeting at Cruickshank Middle School on Tuesday night, leaders and staff were met with more questions about traffic safety measures, the dangers of street racing, the need for more neighborhood street lighting, the need for wider bike lanes, and the future of a youth employment program, among other issues.
One resident brought up a recent street racing tragedy that resulted in a woman losing her life. He wanted to know about the possibility of adding more traffic lights at certain intersections, or increasing signage and patrols.
City officials said they are aware of problem areas and are responding with a variety of strategies. Police Sergeant Dan Dabney noted that the City Council approved a big grant for a new traffic monitoring system that can be set up in any neighborhood and will independently and accurately record time-of-day traffic speeds and other data that will help focus where and when traffic patrols should be deployed to a particular area for enforcement.
“The reality is we don’t have enough traffic officers to be everywhere within the city,” Dabney said.
Also, City Engineer Mike Beltran revealed that the city has applied for a grant to create a traffic-slowing roundabout at Buena Vista and M Street — one of the locations where safety is a major concern.
City Manager Stephanie Dietz also added another perspective: “Even with the roundabout, even with lights, the bigger issue that we have in our traffic is street racing, and we have done a lot to try and prevent that.” Dietz suggested more can be done on the Merced Connect app, and urged people to record video and send information through the app to the city so that authorities can track down the law breakers..
She added, “That’s really what took the life of this individual — was street racing — and I don’t know that any of the traffic controls we could have installed would have prevented this loss of life.”
Several young adults urged the Council to keep up funding for the a Youth Employment Program that was funded last year through the federal American Rescue Plan Act. The two-year program targeted 160 young people, but the city received about 196 applications in the first three weeks of advertising the opportunity. So far 75 have completed the program, and a new cohort of workers is starting soon. Organizers are also planning a big summer campaign to begin in May. However, the ARPA funding for the program will expire in June of 2024.
Mayor Matt Serratto said it appears to be an effective and worthy program.
“That said,” he commented, “Historically there have been different branches or parts of government that do different things [with regard to work programs] — the county with Workforce Development, and the schools within the Office of Education with the ROP program. … We need to take a close look and look at all the partners. … What role for the city? I think is the question going forward.”
Other concerns brought up included the need for more street lights in neighborhoods and parks, and specifically at McNamara Park, near the skate park there.
Beltran said the park site lighting is in the works, and the city’s ongoing Safe Streetlights program continues to upgrade existing street lights with brighter LED lighting. However, he said, the program does not involve adding new lights to areas.
Said Mayor Serratto: “The city is too dark. There is not enough lighting. It’s an issue all over the city— especially the older parts of town.”
He promised to continue with the effort to increase lighting around town, and his colleagues on the council appeared to agree.