City leaders met at the Civic Center on Feb. 11 to discuss goals and priorities as budget planning begins for the upcoming fiscal year.
During the nearly four hour meeting, members of the Merced City Council raised a number of issues they would like to see city staff focus on in 2023. The discussion included topics of public safety, rent control and a rental registry, downtown improvements, and coordinating efforts with Merced County government.
As the meeting got underway, Councilmember Shane Smith prompted a discussion about where the City of Merced’s responsibilities to residents ends and the State of California or Merced County’s responsibilities begin.
“In this particular vein, it gets very murky,” replied City Manager Stephanie Dietz. “So we do not offer navigation services [for adults experiencing homelessness], the county has the Navigation Center and offers those stabilization services as we do not offer behavioral health, substance abuse treatment, or public health services. We offer housing; however, many of our housing projects are coordinated with these services from the County.”
Dietz also noted interplay between the city and county when it comes to calls for service received by the Police Department. “There is no one that comes when you call besides the Police Department and so we become the entry point, but we do not have an alternative resource to send these types of calls to besides the Police Department and Fire as well,” she said. “But then to your point, where is the hand off or the alternative community resource that the community can call when the issue isn’t really a public safety disturbance. That’s really the question at hand, how do we build that network stronger so we can shift that workload onto the more appropriate resource.”
Dietz finished by explaining that while she does work with the Merced County CEO Raul Mendez and make use of county services when she is able to, the idea of coordinating the overall goals and outcomes between the city and county governments is something that is above her.
Councilmember Smith questioned what Dietz believed the best course of action would be, asking “Should we go to speak during public comment during the Board of Supervisors meetings?” Dietz said council members would be well within their purview to “take them out to lunch,” or otherwise sit down and talk to them and build a report with County Supervisors though activities such as joint town hall meetings.
Councilmember Jesse Ornelas spoke up, saying; “We should do our due diligence as elected officials for the city and then also hold something that is joint to maybe strengthen that relationship and heal some areas that may need some healing, and then just have those difficult conversations, and say: ‘We need you all to do this. You get money from the state to do this. We need you to do it.’”
Public safety resources
In an effort to ensure that current police officers are being utilized in the most effective manner possible, city leaders pivoted the discussion to leveraging non-sworn positions to help lighten current officer’s burdens.
“There are certain things that police officers do which a non-sworn person could do,” suggested Mayor Serratto. “That’s a big, broader question, and I think that is an area where a lot of police reform advocates and police agree.”
Acting Police Chief Joe Weiss noted that the city has a “Community Services officer, and they help us out with different things. We have Code Enforcement. We also have Animal Control… We could certainly look at shifting some of the workload from officers to community services officers and have them help out in a number of ways. They could help us out with a number of reports. A lot of report are done online and don’t necessarily require a sworn officer to come out and do stuff.”
The council decided to place an evaluation of the services handled by officers on their list of goals and priorities, with Dietz saying that city staff would look to evaluate “the work that an officer does and outlining the areas where we feel that their time could be better used or other resource should be deployed.”
Said Dietz, “We could also deploy different resources around some of these school sites because in every community we have these school site traffic issues.”
The council also placed an evaluation of public safety facilities and equipment needs on the list, as well as a study regarding a potential pilot program on Olive Avenue that would utilize traffic cameras to automatically issue tickets to car owners for red light violations.
Rent Control and Rental Registry
As the subject of housing came up, the discussion quickly became intertwined with the recent flood disaster and displaced residents.
“I feel that we may need to have some type of pro-renter designation that would allow us to entertain the development of policies and revisit some other efforts that we had in the past to help out all the renters in Merced,” Ornelas said. “So for instance, revisiting things like a rental registry, as well as a possible rent cap for a couple years, a temporary one, until our economics can catch up.”
Councilwoman Perez added, “Because of the natural disaster that just happened, there are a lot of people that are struggling to get housing right now because of unforeseen things that was not their fault.”
Other council members remained skeptical of the ideas of a rental registry and rent control, including Smith. “So what is the nexus between the flooding and citywide rent control? … I’ll share my anecdotal experience. In my [law] practice I represent public benefit corporations that build affordable housing, and I have three litigations where the investor partner, not the public benefit corporation, wants to pull out of California and leave these projects in a lurch. The reason they are leaving is because laws like rent control make it difficult to operate.”
Mayor Serratto joined in: “My personal view after having gone through this, and having discussed it, and looking at others who have done it, is that there is a much more streamlined, easier way to do it with code enforcement that targets slumlords. It’s a ton of bureaucracy to register every rental in the city.”
The matter would come out down to a vote, with a majority of council members — Fue Xiong, Ronnie De Anda, Jesse Ornelas, and Bertha Perez — in favor of revisiting the ideas of a citywide rental registry and rent control.
“I want to explore a way to rid the ugliness of those empty buildings we have on Main Street, from G Street to M Street,” said Perez. “I think it’s such an ugly eyesore.” She went on say that she felt that the owners of the buildings should be held accountable, as the city is spending public safety dollars due to repeated calls related to the condition of the vacant buildings.
On the idea of creating a tech education and development corridor on Main Street, Ornelas said: “I think we might be ready to begin developing some tech relationships and partnerships with businesses in town. We have a pretty good resource in BitWise in the City of Merced, and the City of Fresno has a really good relationship with BitWise and it has sparked a lot of economic growth.”
The council also discussed the creation of arts districts in Merced, including the downtown area, as well as the continued funding of arts project to the tune of $50,000 to $100,000 for projects. Other focuses for the downtown area included solidifying a transit hub or other connections between downtown and the Merced-Yosemite Regional Airport.
Other topics that came up
City leaders also addressed particularly bad roads within the city limits, such as Collins Drive and Buena Vista, as well as a number of projects related to parks, sidewalks and street lighting. Additional subjects included youth investment, recreation opportunities, a partnership between the youth council and the City Manager’s office, the redrafting of a parks master plan, continued support for affordable housing and the configuration of a housing trust fund, and a continued response and commitment to helping residents and property owners recover from the recent flood.