Board of Supervisors approves $1.17 billion budget
By John Miller & Jonathan Whitaker
The Merced County Board of Supervisors unanimously gave a final thumbs up to a record $1.7 billion budget for fiscal year 2023-24 on Tuesday, prioritizing public safety and making key investments in capital improvement projects and parks.
It’s the second straight year the $1 billion mark was reached.
“That number keeps getting bigger,” Board Chair Scott Silveira commented. “This is why I say we’re healthy, we’re not wealthy, right? It it’s because that top line number, people fall in love with that, but understand there’s a lot of that we have no control over. There are state and federally mandated programs on how that money comes in, and how it’s spent.”
Said Supervisor Lloyd Pariera: “Last year, I made a comment that I didn’t think we would see another billion-dollar budget again, you know, obviously, I was wrong. … We are watching the sales tax numbers, and those are trending down, and so, my guess is, I don’t know, next year might be over $1 billion, but I don’t think it’ll be bigger than today’s budget.”
This year’s General Fund Budget totals just over $800 million — with much of those dollars being dedicated pass-through funding from state and federal sources. Of the funding supervisors have direct discretion over, approximately $92.8 million or 73 percent is dedicated to public safety.
“As a public agency, we take great pride in being outstanding fiscal stewards of the taxpayer’s dollar,” said Raul Lomeli Mendez, county executive officer. “While this budget reflects the board’s key priorities today, it is also mindful of the uncertain economic times that may lie ahead.”
The budget increased by $108.1 million from last year’s spending plan. Much of this increase can be attributed to $21.4 million in appropriations related to the John Latorraca Correctional Center project, $13.1 million to address flood recovery and debris removal, and other costs related to the Public Safety/Justice System, Health and Human Services, and Capital Improvement Projects.
Another major focus for the board is parks and open spaces. While much of the funding in this area has come from grants, earmarks, and state budget allocations, the board continues to allocate $500,000 annually to be used toward park improvements. The overall Parks Improvement Plan includes projects such as repairs to ball fields and courts, fencing, picnic tables, playground covers, lighting, restroom repairs, and irrigation system enhancements.
Additionally, in order to help safeguard the county against economic uncertainties, reserves were increased by $3 million to $45.1 million this year.
“This is a balanced budget that reflects our community’s key priorities, placing particular emphasis on public safety, parks and infrastructure,” Silveira said. “Thanks to our board’s fiscal discipline over the years, we are able to make these key investments while also setting aside rainy-day funds for unanticipated issues.”
At the end of the meeting, the chairman did point out concerns related to rising health care premiums for county workers.
“I’ve received a lot of emails from employees in the county that are concerned with health care costs,” he said. “It’s not lost on us, and we’re looking at stuff.”
A few county employees and a couple union representatives showed up at Tuesday’s meeting with serious concerns about the rising insurance rates.
“This year it’s a huge raise,” said Mary McWaters a local union representative for AFSCME employees. “It’s the difference between our members paying groceries or coverage for their families. Every year we go to bargaining, and we ask the county to remove the cap on the insurance, and they refuse. This is a subject that comes up all the time. Something needs to be done. It’s getting ridiculous. Right now the increase is falling 100 percent on the employees. … Their salaries aren’t going up enough to cover it. … The cost of living is rising. They are finding it difficult to get by.”
Another union rep. for public safety dispatchers, who said his name was Andrew, used himself as an example.
“In 2024, if I stay on my current health care plan, 24 percent of my salary will be gone to health care increases. The lowly 6 percent increase we received in the last round of negotiations will be wiped away and I’ll be in the negative after the raise. Gone before I even see it — before taxes, withholdings, and inflationary cost of living. Demanding the county employee to live on 70 percent or less of their already deflated salary is a disgusting practice that you, sitting before me, perpetuate.”