Well, it looks like the City of Merced did its best to encourage a strong response from a population of nearly 85,000 residents.
Leaders said they wanted to know how local people would like them to spend$27 million dollars in federal relief funding, and so city staff members conducted a survey to find out.
Questionnaires were mailed to homes and businesses, and a link to an online survey was announced through instant text messages, media advertisements, posters and banners. They spent $35,459 for the outreach from Aug. 24 to Sept 30.
In the end, just over 3,000 residents and business owners responded.
On Monday night, the Merced City Council listened to a presentation on the survey results, and also heard some initial reactions from the public. They also announced a set of hearings to gather more public input about the subject on Nov. 1 and Dec. 6, before a spending strategy is implemented.
Here are some of the takeaways from the survey:
• When asked to rank priorities for the city’s use of federal funds to recover from the pandemic, survey respondents identified the top two investment categories as: 1. Services for households and individuals hardest hit, and 2. Investments in water and sewer infrastructure.
• Under a question for employees, 1,281 of the 3,000 respondents said they were not economically impacted by COVID-19.
• Under a question for business owners impacted by COVID-19, 352 said they experienced a reduction in income, 100 said they experienced increased costs, and 39 mentioned a permanently closed business.
• Under a question for residential landlords impacted by COVID-19, 160 said they had tenants who did not pay or paid only partial rent, and 30 said tenants moved without paying.
• When asked what the biggest challenge in recovering from the pandemic, survey respondents listed “fear of illness and being around others” as the top challenge — outside of not having a challenge at all, which was the top response. This was followed by “emotional isolation” and “financial income loss. ”
• When asked what are the Top Three issues the city should address with federal funding, survey respondents said: 1. “More housing programs,” 2. “Public Safety,” and 3. “Hazard pay for essential workers.” Other issues that followed included, “community beautification, streets, homeless programs and youth programs.
• The surveys also gathered about 141 standard pages of written comments from individuals. The top topics of the comments were homeless services, youth programs, street repair and park cleanups.
It’s important to remember that the use of the federal funding — known as the American Rescue Plan Act Of 2021 — is directed into four categories:
1. To respond to the public health emergency or its negative economic impacts;
2. To respond to workers performing essential work during the pandemic and provide premium pay;
3. To make necessary investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure;
4. To replace specific revenues that were reduced due to the pandemic.
ARPA funds can’t go to things like city pension funds, reserve accounts, settlement agreements and match funding for other federal programs.
Venus Rodriguez, the city’s finance officer, explained a “very complex” revenue calculation under U.S. Treasury guidelines that revealed the City of Merced experienced a revenue loss (applicable to the ARPA funding) of $5.5 million in 2020.
The city has already received $13.7 million of the total ARPA funding, and the other half is expected in 2022. So far, leaders have authorized $2.5 million in revenue replacement, and more than $500,000 in premium pay to city employees including in the areas of police, fire and public works.
On Monday night, members of the Merced City Council chimed in with their first views on ARPA funding after hearing the survey results. If they all agreed on anything it was the issue of “water” — particularly with regard to drought preparedness.
“I think water is not something that’s going to get the attention from the public in a survey, but water is the most important thing,” said Mayor Matthew Serratto. “It’s been the most important thing throughout the history of California. Living where we live, in a world of a growing population and increasing water scarcity, we need to make significant investments in water and water conservation.”
Four of the seven council members mentioned “city beautification” and “youth programming” as priorities, and only three of seven council members mentioned the word “housing.”
Dozens of young adults and community activists showed up for the survey talks and spoke up during the public comment period. Many touched on themes that have been brought up all summer long to the Merced City Council and to the Merced County Board of Supervisors, another group of leaders deciding on APRA funding.
People have been calling for the city to create an “affordable housing trust fund” using $5 million to $8 million of the APRA funding. They want more investment in activities for kids, as well as water and sewer infrastructure. And last but not least, they want premium pay directed to low-wage “essential” workers in factories, food processing plants, farming operations, grocery stores and retail outlets.
“What about the essential workers in Merced?” asked Sheng Xiong, a policy advocate for the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. “They don’t even know that they are entitled to any of this funding. … Cities like Oxnard have created premium pay with federal dollars for grocery store workers. There is no reason why we couldn’t do that here.”
Said Merced resident, Pangcha Vang: “I noticed that the third item at the top of the survey was premium pay for essential workers. After the presentation, I didn’t hear the mayor or any city council member say their priority is to give premium pay to essential workers. That was very disappointing. I mean, what was the point of the survey if you are not going to support that?”
Vang added, “These are the workers who got us through the COVID-19 pandemic. They fed us. They provided our essential needs. And week by week, I see you giving premium pay and hazard pay to police, fire, supervisors and managers of city workers, the city manager who makes $220,000 a year, and the city finance officer. And you know they didn’t have to wait for a town hall. They didn’t have to wait for two public speaking meetings, right? It’s time you give the premium pay to low-wage workers.”
Before the meeting on Monday night even started, a group of young people rallied outside the Merced Civic Center, demanding some $3 million in federal relief funding be directed to “youth jobs” and “direct income.”
“We must make big, bold investments in young people’s future a priority,” said Astrid Morales, an organizer with Power California. “Right now our communities are not being included in recovery efforts, while most of the city’s budget goes towards the police. The City Council must make sure that the ARPA funding for COVID recovery goes to housing, guaranteed basic income, and youth jobs. They must have the courage to care and choose to invest in us now when we need relief the most. We can’t go back to normal and must reinvest to rebuild.”
The $3 million demand included these specifics:
- $2.5 million dollars towards the establishment of a guaranteed income program for young people that live in the city of Merced. This pilot program would provide monthly stipends of $400 over a two-year span for 250 youth between the ages of 18-24, especially those who are impacted by the juvenile, foster, and criminal justice systems.
- $500,000 to create a jobs program specifically for 100 Merced City high school youth. The program would operate for six weeks, and the youth would receive 192 hours of on-the-job work experience and be paid $15 an hour. In addition, young people would receive the support services they need for work, such as bus passes and uniforms.