OP/ED: 2021 – A Year On The Merced City Council
By MATTHEW SERRATTO
City of Merced Mayor
Over the past year, our City Council has aimed to address Merced’s most significant issues head-on, with energy, open dialogue and a desire for action. The result — plenty of hard work, planning, preparation and, of course, meetings full of spirited debate stretching past midnight. The final output this necessary political process produces is what truly matters, as each Council is blessed only with a brief, precious window to make good decisions and to get as much work done as possible. Projects take time to complete once votes are cast and budgets fixed, meaning we will not see the results of much of what we did for some time, but we hope that in 2021 we moved Merced in the right direction and accomplished some things that will make us a little prouder of our hometown.
Housing has quickly surpassed homelessness as California’s most urgent political issue. Throughout 2021 we engaged in a major redesign of our zoning and housing policy in order to streamline development, accelerate the construction process, reduce red tape, provide for more creativity and flexibility in unit-type and location, helping to make housing more affordable and affordable housing easier to design and build. We allocated approximately $15 million towards specific housing projects, supporting the construction of over 1,000 affordable units. We authorized the application for a $2.5 million state grant to support a first-time homebuyer downpayment assistance program. Merced continues to grow at a steady pace – we were the 2nd fastest growing city in California in 2020 (fastest over 33,000), and by all appearances did not slow down at all in 2021.
Homelessness remains a massive challenge, only exacerbated by the pandemic. From January 2019 to January 2021, the number of people living unsheltered on the streets of the City of Merced increased from 204 to 224. In early 2021 our council crafted an encampment/public space management policy that prioritizes police enforcement in sensitive areas such as parks, downtown, creeks, business corridors and residential areas while prioritizing services and mitigation in areas with less public impact. We finalized our litter abatement contract with Restore Merced, a local non-profit/job training program that puts formerly homeless to work picking up trash. We negotiated a “Delegated Maintenance Agreement” with Caltrans, allowing us to now provide regular garbage service to encampments on Caltrans properties and obtain reimbursement from the State of California for it. We assisted local non-profits such as the Rescue Mission, Sierra Saving Grace and Healthy House with funding to enhance the essential work that they do. Most significantly, we identified and secured funding for over 150 dedicated homeless/permanent supportive units, including a container home project at Childs & R, a Project Homekey motel redesign at 1213 V St and an apartment complex on Park Ave.
• PARKS & REC.
We planned and funded the following parks improvements: CP-42 regional soccer/sports complex at Mission & Tyler, major Applegate Zoo upgrade; major dog park upgrade; wheelchair swings; McNamara Park skate park lights; new playground equipment at McNamara, Fahrens and 12 smaller parks; new bathrooms at McNamara, Fahrens, Applegate and Rahilly Parks; Ada Givens Park swimming pool restoration; enhanced bike path maintenance; purchased the trailer for our Block Party Trailer, painted dozens of park benches bright colors and identified a location for the San Jose Sharks teal top outdoor street hockey court at Applegate Park. We added tennis and girls’ basketball to our recreational offerings, increased the number of youth sports vouchers we provide to kids who otherwise could not afford to participate, added a unique Movie in the Park rooftop edition atop the parking lot at 18th and M, and will soon add Junior Sharks Hockey to compliment the teal top as well. We named three parks: General Vang Pao Park/Aletha June playground, SSG Frank Joseph Gasper Park and Parque de los Angelitos. In partnership with the Historical Society and the Downtown Neighborhood Association, we initiated a community-led fundraising drive to revitalize the historic Laura Fountain in Applegate Park. Bringing that fountain, commissioned by the founder of Merced and the site of so many weddings and events over the years, back to its former glory this year would be an amazing gift to our community to commemorate the 150th anniversary of its establishment in 1872.
• CLEANING UP
Our city-supported volunteer cleanup day events have removed roughly 100 tons of trash from our city’s streets, creeks and alleys, often in partnership with private businesses, schools, churches, Merced County, the Merced Youth Council and non-profit organizations such as Merced Walks and the Bear Creek Yacht Club. As mentioned previously, we finalized our litter abatement contact with Restore Merced and negotiated a Delegated Maintenance Agreement with Caltrans to allow for regular refuse service at encampments. We extended the hours of the Bulky-Item Drop Off Site at Yosemite Ave and Highway 59 to address illegal dumping. We created an MOU with Merced County Probation to allow individuals to perform their community service hours by cleaning up litter within the City of Merced.
• POLICE STATION
Over the past decade, the city had looked at the Mansionette and G St/Sun-Star sights to build a new police station, which would have likely cost taxpayers in excess of $50 million while moving the station away from downtown. We decided instead to remodel our current police station, maintain our McNamara Park substation, and add a downtown substation in the city-owned former UC Merced Venture Lab location at 18th and M. This will allow us to update the aging police headquarters, relieve overcrowding by moving significant police personnel to 18th and M, create a significant downtown police presence, maintain a needed South Merced presence and save our citizens from paying for a massive brand new station.
• PUBLIC SAFETY
Our police staffing levels have remained steady, avoiding the major shortages that have plagued other cities. We added a reserve officer program, have allocated funding to support a significant violence prevention effort, and won a three-year state grant to fund a youth substance abuse intervention/prevention program. Most significantly, we have begun preparations to place a Measure C extension or renewal on the November 2022 ballot. Measure C is a half-cent City of Merced sales tax approved by the voters in 2006 that supports nearly 35 police and fire jobs and sunsets in 2026. Its elimination would have catastrophic consequences not just for our Police Department and Fire Department but for other departments which could struggle to maintain existing services.
2022 should be an exciting, dynamic year for Downtown Merced with many new businesses and public improvements on the horizon. The City recently added “Welcome to Downtown” signs at G/Main and R/Main and orchestrated the privately-funded utility box art project. We redesigned N St between 16th and 18th to convert parallel parking to angled/diagonal, which added 15 additional parking stalls in those two blocks. We are currently conducting a Downtown Traffic Study, using the Main St/Canal one-way pilot (temporarily adds 28 parking spaces in those 3 blocks) as a means to test how we can use traffic changes and diagonal parking conversions to increase parking, allow for more landscaping and outdoor seating and create a slower, more traditional hometown feel. We have explored the creation of an Arts District and are currently well into the process of creating a “PBID,” Property Based Improvement District, to give us a downtown association with more resources, better property owner involvement and the ability to more effectively address core issues such as safety, security, cleanliness and maintenance. We have allocated funding to create an extension of Bob Hart Square down Canal St towards 16th St as well as to add the landscaping and outdoor space that compliments the diagonal parking conversions all across downtown.
• UC ANNEXATION
Assemblyman Adam Gray’s AB3312 enabled us to annex UC Merced and the properties immediately adjacent to it, which will facilitate much-needed development around the campus and take pressure off of our housing stock. We have already begun the annexation process and have declared preliminary support for two extremely impressive projects to the south and west of the campus – the University Vista and the Virginia Smith Trust developments – which combined will provide thousands of housing units, considerable commercial space and contribute tremendous vibrancy to the UC Merced area.
The long-term health of our city depends on a reliable water supply. We currently obtain our water from a series of wells throughout the city, but we pump the water from the ground faster than the rain replenishes it. To address that, we are currently exploring alternative sources of supply that will enhance and secure our water future, while we simultaneously have already devoted $2.5 million in federal funding to water conservation efforts with the hope that it will spark an enduring reduction in our water usage.
• PUBLIC ART
We commissioned the Downtown Utility-Box Art Project, which showcased our talented local artists. We are close to securing a significant state grant for welcome signs and murals on seven Caltrans underpasses. We instituted an open call for public art proposals, and are hopeful that our community can deliver some wonderful ideas for us to consider as we formulate our 2022-2023 budget this spring.
• OUR EMPLOYEES
The 500+ City of Merced employees do the work of our City, providing the necessary water, sewer, refuse, road, police, fire, planning, etc, etc services that a city requires to function. For years our employees have been underpaid compared to their peers in other jurisdictions, and this year we were able to give them the most significant raises we have offered in a long time, in an effort to compensate them appropriately for their hard work and ensure that the City of Merced is a desirable employer that can attract and retain top talent.
We continue to prioritize much-needed road reconstruction across town, as evidenced by the recent R St, N St, V St, G St, M St projects, among others. We have further invested in the following, to name a few – South Merced sidewalks, Loughborough storm drains, water main installation, Bellevue Ranch landscaping, Broadband internet access, rehabilitating the exterior of City Hall and instituting the supplemental safety measures necessary to apply for railroad Quiet Zones on the 24th St/Santa Fe BNSF line. We have emphasized tree pruning and maintenance, dedicating dramatically more resources to one of the issues we hear about most from our citizens.
• FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY
Our 2021-2022 budget was not merely balanced, we budgeted a surplus while also adding to our reserve, pension and economic development funds.
• BUILDING COMMUNITY
We routinely welcome our citizens into our council chambers to celebrate their achievements or to highlight important topics or events, from Olympic medalists to our volunteers of the year, from Asian-American hate crime awareness and prevention to promoting the annual Central California Band Review. We support community events, such as the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s wildly successful Mercado Night Market. We instituted a flag policy, which enabled the Pride flag to fly above Bob Hart Square in June and the Mexican flag to do so on Mexican Independence Day, with hopefully many more to come. We offered financial support to various non-profits: the LGBTQIA+ Pride Center, Kid’s Discovery Station, SWAG, Lifeline CDC, Boys & Girls Club, just to name a few.
• GATEWAY TO YOSEMITE
We renamed our airport the “Merced Yosemite Regional Airport.” We began working with our local hospitality industry on the formation of a TBID, Tourism Business Improvement District. We recommended a new air service, Advanced Air, for our federal Essential Air Service Grant, with a reliable reputation, a strong marketing background and daily direct flights from Merced to Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
• ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
In order to assist our businesses and residents through the pandemic, we provided funding for: rent/mortgage/utility relief, small business assistance, business license fee grants, hotel assistance, food bank assistance, water/sewer bill rebates, essential worker stimulus payments, non-profit support and utility bill relief. We adjusted our Giftbar gift card program so that the City will now match dollar for dollar (up to $75) any gift card purchased at www.mercedcares.com for a local participating Merced business. We created a major youth job training program in partnership with County Workforce Development. We have approved projects and instituted several zoning changes, some specific and some general, designed to attract business and spur development. With many new businesses opening in 2021, more planned for 2022 and an unemployment rate that has most recently fallen to 7.6 percent, we are optimistic for the future of Merced’s economy.