Well perhaps some of the last words spoken at Tuesday night’s Merced City Council meeting will be the most prophetic as our local government begins a new year that will be marked by town halls and budget planning meetings in the days to come.
“Obviously there’s ups and downs on the Council, but just look at all the good work we did tonight,” said Mayor Matthew Serratto. “Issues that deal with downtown (the PBID), Community Park 42, 200-plus affordable housing units, mural art, high speed rail planning, police training, and on and on. … Today is an example of a meeting where we did a lot of good work. … That’s really what matters to this community. Getting the work done.”
Mayor Serratto was creating a contrast to the Council’s final meeting of 2023, when a busy agenda turned into an hours-long heated debate involving local residents and leaders over whether or not the city should formally call for a ceasefire in the war-torn region of Gaza in the Middle East.
The request was first brought forward for discussion by Councilman Fue Xiong who has been highly critical of Israel’s response to the Oct. 7 terrorist attack by Hamas and insists the city should do something to help the Palestinian people.
At Tuesday’s meeting, there was no talk that delved into the Middle East; however, resident Cynthia Kelly raised her voice about the City Council moving forward.
“This council is fractured,” Kelly said, “and I think you know that your city employees see it, and you know that we as the citizens see it. There is a mile-wide crack in the foundation of this council.
Kelly, the president of the Merced SPCA, said her concerns have led her to run for a seat on the council in the November election. Kelly did not mention what district seat on the Council she will be pursuing. Xiong, who she criticized on Tuesday night, has a few years left on his term. The seats held by Council members Jesse Ornelas, Sarah Boyle, Bertha Perez and Mayor Serratto are all expected to be contested races in the fall.
Getting back to business
Tuesday’s Council meeting was highlighted by leaders unanimously moving forward with a development agreement with Linc Housing for an ambitious 54-unit affordable housing complex located downtown at the northwest corner of 18th and I streets and the southwest corner of 19th and I streets. This high-density project that meets state guidelines would consist of all one-bedroom, one-bath units within two multi-story buildings.
Councilman Shane Smith pointed out that no new parking was planned for the residential area that is located only a block from Main Street. He said the issue could come back with greater public comment in the later stages of the project which could take several years to complete if approvals are met. Mayor Serratto argued the units were needed, and close to transportation centers. He also said future work on 18th Street will create additional diagonal parking, and therefore more spaces for vehicles in the vicinity.
The new Property Based Improvement District, or PBID, is coming along with the city leaders appointing recommended business and property owners to the district’s first Board of Directors.
They include a list of standout Merced residents: Eric Hamm as Chair, Doug Fluetsch as Vice Chair, Peg Larson as Secretary, Grey Roberts as Treasurer, Robin Donovan as a Board Member, Elmer Lorenzi as a Board Member, and Robert Matsuo as a Board Member. The council also appointed City Manager Scott McBride as a representative on the board. The move also comes as the council suspended the “Double Business License Fee” that has been collected for years among downtown business owners. The new PBID will be funded through downtown property assessments.
Public art projects
The Arts and Cultural Advisory Commission presented their project selections that will be funded with about $70,000 that was awarded to the city from the regional Heartland Grant Project. They were all approved by the City Council.
Projects include murals at the Nannini Youth Sports Complex (artist Patricia Pratt, $7,800), the Gilbert Macias Park Restroom (artist Karen McComb, $7,800), the Joe Herb Park Concession Wall (artist Patricia Pratt, $7,800), a city owned Dumpster enclosure (artist Karen McComb, $7,800), the McNamara Basketball Court (artist Joel Aguilar, $8,550) and a large exterior wall at the McCombs Youth Center (artist Patricia Pratt $22,500).