Former Merced Mayor Mike Murphy re-entered the city spotlight with a surprise appearance at last week’s Town Hall at Weaver Middle School, and a new message for local residents.
Murphy announced to city leaders and the public that he was the chairman of the new Committee to Renew Measure C, and the group plans to renew the measure through the election process.
Measure C is a voter-approved half-cent sales tax dedicated to public safety, police and fire staffing and related infrastructure projects. It was approved in 2006, with a 20-year life span.
Last year, with public safety funding remaining a concern among leaders and officials, city staff made preparations for an extension of Measure C to be placed on the ballot so voters could confront \the issue and prevent a lapse in critical funding. However, a split City Council voted against the action, and Measure C has since been mired in controversy.
“Voters watched last August as three of the seven Council members voted not to put Measure C to the voters for renewal,” Murphy told the Town Hall gathering. “I along with many others were disappointed that Merced voters didn’t get the opportunity to cast ballots in support for a measure that brings stability to our residents in terms of police and fire protection.”
The ever-eloquent and easily quotable Murphy continued: “Over the last several months our group has been convening to put a resident-led renewal of Measure C on the ballot. Our group has been working with an election law attorney to craft the legal language necessary to submit to the county Registrar of Voters and to the city attorney. And in the coming days, our residents will see their neighbors, will see their friends, asking for their signatures on petitions — at grocery stores, at soccer games, and at community events.
“We will do for our residents what some council members chose not to do for us. We will put Measure C on the ballot.”
That last line prompted applause from the Town Hall audience, and then the former mayor continued: “We will provide more information at a later date, but here are the basic contours:
• “We are putting together a clean renewal of Measure C
• “Our measure keeps the existing half-cent sales tax, and is not an increase on people’s pocket books, especially at a time when they can’t afford it.
• “The funds will be directed to police protection, fire protection and road maintenance in a manner consistent with historic allocations.
• “Our measure will have a 20-year sunset provision, just like the current measure.
• “In 20 years, voters can decide whether to keep the tax in place, or not. If the city continues to be a good steward of the money, then there shouldn’t be a problem obtaining a renewal.”
Then Murphy added: “There is, however, one important distinction between the current Measure C, and the new Measure C. The new version of Measure C will be guaranteed to only go to police protection, fire protection and road maintenance. In other words, it will be a Special Tax that can only be used for those purposes rather than a General Tax.
“While state law requires that Special Taxes be passed with a two-thirds majority if the City Council puts the tax on the ballot, state law allows Special Taxes that are put forth by resident groups like ours, with ballot signatures, to be passed at the 50-percent-plus-one threshold.”
In conclusion, Murphy said: “While we don’t need your approval, or vote, or blessing to move forward with this effort, we certainly seek and would love to have your support, nonetheless. It’s going to be a lot of work, and we hope to find partners in this work with each one of you.”
There were minimal comments about Murphy’s announcement during the Town Hall; however, the City Council did pick up the Measure C issue a couple days later during a budget strategy session at City Hall.
Mayor Matt Serratto, a strong supporter of Measure C, said the City Council itself would not be able to move a renewal forward until 2024, and he suggested that a good idea would be to see if the citizens committee could get the job done in the primary of that year. If it failed, there would still be a chance for the city to put a renewal measure before voters in the November general election that same year.
Councilwoman Bertha Perez, who voted against the city putting a Measure C renewal on the ballot last year, said she supports a renewal but she thinks the citizens plan doesn’t go far enough. She wants the sales tax to be raised to a full one cent.
“Merced is growing and we need to provide officers with quality pay,” she told her colleagues. “We need to invest in our fire and our police. If we are in support of them, then we should want more for them. I want it to be on the ballot, but I also want it to provide adequate funding for our officers. If we want quality officers and quality firefighters, which we do have now, but we know we’re going to need more because some are leaving to cities that are surrounding us because we are not paying them enough.”
Councilman Jesse Ornelas, who also voted against the renewal effort last year, said he would support a Measure C renewal — if it includes funding for affordable housing.
“Last year, when Measure C failed, it was never about stopping Measure C, it was about us being able to provide a housing element for it.”
He added, “Personally I don’t think the voters would vote for it without a housing element. I think last year that is what we learned — a lot of community members came out and they wanted some percentage of it to go towards housing. And what the community group isn’t providing is that, and I think that might end up being that measures downfall.”
Merced’s acting Police Chief Joe Weiss pointed to the situation at hand. Currently, the Police Department has 98 sworn officers, but six of those positions remain vacant. Another 18 officers are on leave due to workers compensation, required training and administrative reasons. He also noted that about a dozen police officers have signaled their intent to leave the department for other agencies. City officials have also told the Times that the Disruptive Area Response Team (DART) has been temporarily disbanded due to the staffing issues, and the dedicated police officer for the downtown area has been reassigned to general patrol.
In an interview with the Times after the meeting, Councilman Shane Smith summed it up this way: “We are, all of a sudden, seeing council members who voted against giving the voters a chance to consider Measure C, are now, all of a sudden, in favor of it. You voted against Measure C, and now we don’t have a DART team. Now downtown doesn’t have a dedicated patrol officer. There is a direct line between the decision you made and the people of downtown and the people of Merced having less of a police presence and less of police customer service than they had before. You should own up to that.”
He added that the previous City Council, prior to last November’s election, was the one that created a mess, and “We have to be the Council that fixes it.”
In any renewal outcome, City Manager Stephanie Dietz told council members: “We still should be looking at strategically moving employees off Measure C as other funding sources allow, because the lighter the burden, the better in two years.”