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Merced leaders manage to clear budget hurdles after a long run

There’s good reason for Merced city leaders to start publicly discussing budget goals and priorities in February, so that when it comes time to finalize a new fiscal budget in June, discussions at City Hall have a decent chance to go relatively smoothly.

But then again, there always seems to be those final, lengthy debates on the dais, passionate pleas from residents at the podium, and last-minute efforts to slip something in, or rip something out.

This month’s City Council meetings had all of those things and more — with one councilman trying to put a hold on a variety of specific investments for the Police Department, another desiring to rework the way the city handles its funds directed at affordable housing programs, heated words over city assistance to nonprofits, a failed attempt to create a “Tenants’ Right To Council” ordinance, and another failed attempt to block an examination of future industrial and technology park areas in South Merced.

In the end, the City Council voted 5-1 to pass the 2023-24 fiscal budget, amounting to a total of $407.5 million, up about $1.8 million from an earlier proposed budget, and nearly $23 million above last year’s fiscal budget plan of $384.6 million.

Councilman Fue Xiong was responsible for the lone NO vote. Councilman Ronnie DeAnda was absent.

The final budget featured a balanced General Fund involving a total of $57.7 million, and included notable set asides for city reserves ($1.08 million was added to reach a projected total of $2.78 million), economic development funds, and a consolidation of affordable housing monies.

City staff positions remained mostly the same with a few intradepartmental position trade-offs.

The final budget also addressed a $500,000 shortfall in the Parks and Community Services budget by transferring monies from the General Fund ($105,000) and Measure Y Cannabis tax revenue ($373,293), along with a plan to raise program fees expected to generate $110,000. It’s the first time in 14 years that these fees have hiked upward. City Council members agreed these Parks & Rec funds would go a long way to preserve programs; however, Councilman Xiong opposed the fee hike, saying the funding should instead come from Measure C revenues designed for public safety.

Water rates will not increase in July, according to Finance Officer Venus Rodriguez; however, rate studies for both the city’s water and wastewater services will be conducted for the next fiscal year.

Among many other things that can be viewed online at:; the new fiscal budget includes more than $2.3 million in Measure V and SB1 transportation funding for projects such as the Collins Drive rehabilitation, and design studies for a remodeled intersection at Buena Vista Drive and M Street, along with public art and mural plans to beautify local roadways.

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

One word that hasn’t come up all that much at City Council meetings in recent months is the three-letter catch word that often helps define local political campaigns: “JOBS.”

Thank Councilmen Jesse Ornelas and Shane Smith for bringing up the word as they encouraged their fellow leaders to sign off on the budget Monday night.

Discussion at the hour had turned to Councilman Xiong’s disapproval of the location for a city feasibility study of a new industrial park in south Merced. Xiong suggested the study should be conducted somewhere in north Merced and away from residents in the southern sector who, according to Xiong, are more exposed to air pollution and other environmental concerns. Several members of the community — including a couple known activists who work for social justice organizations — also spoke up with similar concerns. Nevertheless, the only council member representing a district in south Merced who was present at the meeting — Jesse Ornelas — said he supported the study despite concerns about what he described as “Mother Earth.”

“If we don’t start thinking ahead, and try to figure out a way to stimulate the economy — for the proletariat — for the working class people who actually support the economy here, then potential jobs and industry are going to go to Madera, Turlock, and other communities. I don’t want to see families that have lived here for generations to have to go somewhere else to work when they can work nearby.”

Councilman Smith jumped in and agreed, calling Ornelas courageous for supporting the move: “We need more jobs in our community. We need more jobs in south Merced. We need more jobs that people in Merced can do.”

Even Councilwoman Bertha Perez — who doesn’t always agree with Smith — spoke up: “I ran on affordable housing and jobs,” she declared. “We can’t let an opportunity slip away from the residents of Merced who need these jobs.”

Not to be outdone, Mayor Matthew Serratto brought up another logical point: If you are going to invest in an industrial park or distribution zone, having it located near Highway 99 makes sense. He pointed out that separate areas along Highway 99 in Merced are already targeted for industrial development.

Xiong’s proposal ended up going nowhere with the passage of the budget, and it would be the first of two votes that didn’t go his way during the night.

More Loopholes?

Councilman Xiong made a separate presentation on Monday night outlining his plan to create a new city ordinance called the “Tenants’ Right To Council.” The ordinance, he explained, would basically provide tenants facing an eviction with a free attorney. In other words, evictions wouldn’t take place without full legal representation for low to moderate income tenants.

The move by Xiong comes after recent discussion of rental issues related to the January floods and a fire incident that forced multiple tenants out of an apartment complex on K Street in Old Town Merced.

“We would be leveling the playing field by ensuring that tenants have an equal opportunity to remain in their homes by providing free legal services to those who cannot afford a lawyer for eviction proceedings,” Xiong argued.

Again, Xiong was supported by several community members and activists who spoke up, but there were also several residents and Realtors who spoke against the idea. Those in opposition successfully argued that such an ordinance was not needed in a state that already offers significant protections for renters. Some said such an ordinance would increase costs for landlords, and ultimately housing for those searching for a home. Others pointed to local agencies that support struggling residents, such as Central California Legal Services.

This time, Councilman Shane Smith called Xiong “brave” for coming up with the idea, but in the same breath said he wasn’t going to support it.

“I do not think there is merit to investigate whether or not we should have a right to council in eviction proceedings in the City of Merced, for an uncertain cost, that could put stress on other parts of our budget, that we just wrestled for three meetings to figure out how to keep everything moving forward, and we have city staff who are job-sharing, so we can balance this budget.”

Councilwoman Sarah Boyle added: “This discussion reminds me of the Rental Inspection Program [proposal last year], and how that all ended. That started by this very same conversation, and we moved forward — I think three meetings of our discussions — and it wasn’t until the very final hearing that everyone came out and we squashed it. … We wasted a lot of time.”

Xiong was supported by Council members Ornelas and Perez, but a split vote with Mayor Serratto, Smith and Boyle voting NO meant that Xiong’s plan died on arrival.

Surprisingly, Xiong immediately called for a “reconsideration” at a future meeting so that Councilman DeAnda would be able to vote on it.

Even more surprisingly, Councilwoman Perez asked if they could just call the absent DeAnda up at that moment, apparently to get his vote.

That made the new interim city attorney from Santa Clara — Brian Doyle — laugh and say no that can’t be done. Doyle suggested that Xiong could have made a motion to continue the discussion, but instead a vote was made. As such, only leaders who voted against the motion would have the opportunity to revise their vote at a future meeting.

More to come:

Stay tuned. More Council news is coming. City leaders on Monday night also approved the ballot process for a new Property Based Business Improvement District for downtown Merced. Land owners in the area will be voting on the idea. Also, local businesswoman, politician and activist, Necola Adams, had some choice words for another activist, Pangcha Vang, who criticized the local nonprofit Nut Festival that Adams organizes every year. The spat originates from a Pride Month public gathering as well as a previous council meeting where Councilman Xiong also spoke out against the festival, and urged his fellow leaders to increase support for the Pride Center in Merced instead, seemingly pitting two nonprofits with good intentions against each other.

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