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Residents, city leaders discuss issues during Town Hall meeting in Merced

 

Merced residents gathered inside of City Hall last Thursday evening to take part in the first Town Hall meeting of 2022. The annual series allows local citizens a chance to voice their concerns and have questions answered in a more immediate and less formal manner than what can take place at a normal scheduled City Council meeting.

On Feb. 10, some of the first questions from the public concerned heavy traffic and safety concerns on city streets.

One area of concern was the heavily traveled north-south route of McKee Road from Yosemite Avenue to Santa Fe. Leaders were asked about possible solutions, including the city’s longstanding plan to construct a bridge over Bear Creek along the nearby Parsons Avenue north-south route through town.

Mayor Matthew Serratto noted that a significant stretch of McKee Road falls outside of city limits, but work is being done to alleviate traffic congestion, including an upcoming project to upgrade the intersection at McKee and Yosemite Avenue.

“With regards to the Parsons Avenue Bridge, that was an idea that has been around for a long time, and there was a pretty thorough debate even before I started,” Mayor Serratto said. “It doesn’t fit into the Measure V Regional Projects [transportation sales tax funding] because it’s within the city. … We decided to prioritize the Highway 59 Expansion instead, which at least in my view is a much better use of the project because there is a lot of traffic there.”

City Engineer Michael Beltran jumped in and provided details on the Highway 59 project: “So right now, it’s about $10 to $15 million. There have been plenty of price increases over the last couple of years since getting moving on this project.”

He noted that the project is around 20 percent complete, with the design expected to be finished next year, and construction starting in 2025 or 2026.

There was also a request for an update on the establishment of “Quiet Zones” at the railroad crossings through town. The city has been working on crossing site improvements and safety measures that would reduce the use of onboard train horns that can be heard blaring across town throughout the day and night. Beltran said the city has already allocated $540,000 to establish quiet zones, including recent improvements to the K Street crossing near the Amtrak station. The Highway 59 crossing is the next section to be completed.

“In Merced, we’re a little bit unique because we cannot establish the quiet zone throughout the city until we have all of the crossings done,” Beltran said. “K, Canal, M, R, U, Bear Creek, and 59 — they’re all so close together that all of them have to be completed before we’re eligible to apply for the quiet zone.”

Safety improvements at the crossings include the construction of road medians, and ADA compliant sidewalks.

Resident Denise Lopez brought up concerns about pedestrian safety in the area of Buena Vista near M Street and Rivera Middle School. “I have seen an increase in patrols, but I have not noticed a decrease in accidents, so I’m proposing that maybe a stop sign, a speed bump, anything to slow the traffic down and prevent a casualty.”

Sair Lara focused the council’s attention on speeding in the area of Applegate Park. “26th Street is pretty narrow and we have cars going 50 mph, 60 mph, very fast,” she said. “I have a petition here signed by the entire block of 26th street, from M Street to P Street, saying that something needs to be done, But I also want to talk about how it’s an issue all over town. On Saturday, I was going home from the parking structure [downtown], and five sports cars started running red lights and I almost hit one. It is an ongoing issue in that parking garage that people are there drifting, speeding, and doing all sorts of things. There have been guns that have been caught there, and there have been fights. Police are there every weekend, and yet it remains open.”

Lara made a call for problems at the multi-level “Parcade” parking garage to be addressed before encouraging the council to look into adopting a Slow Streets Program for the streets surrounding city parks.

For his part, Beltran gave a brief overview of the city’s Traffic Committee, which reviews requests related to traffic issues, including matters relating to parking regulations, speed limits, traffic signs, loading zones, safety, and handicapped zones. Residents may apply to have their specific requests reviewed by completing a Citizen Action Request Form.

Another hot-button topic the came up over half a dozen times was the subject of housing affordability and availability. Specifically, a number of residents pushed the council to do more to see that more affordable housing was built within city limits.

The first speaker to broach the subject, Noelle Anderson, asked: “Why does Merced not use any of its discretionary funds for affordable housing like other cities do, especially when the city has ignored residents requests for affordable housing policy and has only adopted policies that make it easier for developers to profit off of Merced without actually securing the likelihood of low-income residents getting housing?”

Follow up questions dealt with the subject of establishing an “affordable housing trust fund.” Some specifically called for the city to set aside $20 million for the fund to support the production of affordable housing for farm workers, low income residents, and young residents.

Passionate responses erupted on both sides of the issue.

Mayor Serratto was quick to state that affordable housing has become a statewide issue and that locally the issue has brought on a considerable amount of debate. “We made a point early on to address the issue head on, and to really look hard at our policies, and look hard at our funding as well,” the mayor said.

He said the city is allowing housing to be built faster with flexible zoning and by increasing the amount of affordable home funding from around $3 million to $15 million. These new policies, the mayor said, would allow for the construction of close to 1,000 units, including more than 200 dedicated units for people facing homelessness.

The mayor also highlighted a recent effort to reestablish and bolster a first-time home buyer down payment assistance program. “It’s going to take some time to see this funding play out,” he said. “It’s going to take some time to see these policy changes make a difference, but we’re hopeful that they all will.”

Councilman Fernando Echevarria echoed these sentiments, saying that he felt the current council has made more progress on housing than previous ones. “Were looking at our in-fill to bring those costs down with pre-fab homes that are going to substantially bring down the cost of a home to maybe $138,000 with my calculations,” he said.

Councilman Jesse Ornelas agreed, but said more can be done. “I think maybe an investment in the housing program that was mentioned in the question, maybe in phases,” he said. “Maybe we don’t start at $20 million. Maybe that is the end goal or maybe that is the middle goal. I think there is still some work we can do and discussions to have. Housing is a human right.”

City Manager Stephanie Dietz spoke up on the housing issue, and explained how Merced could play a part in a regional effort to secure more housing resources: “So part of the conversation that we shared with you when we came back at the end of last summer was about the Regional Early Action Planning funding that we were receiving as a county, and it was a total of $5 million dollars in two separate allocations. One of the eligible uses for this funding was to either establish a housing consortium or a housing trust, and we took your direction and have been working collaboratively with the other jurisdictions in the community.

“You are an entitlement city, you are the only one in the county. But this will allow us to become an entitled county to bring down additional resources and to start building the capacity of housing in and around your city as well.”

Funding from the first allocation of $5 million must be spent within the year, with the second round of funding needing to be spent within 18 months.

Pangcha Vang, a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation took to the podium to express that she felt that there was still more work to be done by the city to improve the supply of affordable housing through the creation of a trust fund at the city level. Again, she also stressed the idea for an initial $20 million to establish the fund.

“Zero percent of Merced’s General Fund budget goes towards affordable housing,” she told leaders. “That is not acceptable. We should not have to beg our government to help our people with housing, but we have to beg because the system is a capitalist system that works for the rich and the police, not the working class. … Housing is a human right, and based off of the 2020 Census, currently there are 1,621 vacant housing units in Merced and 482 homeless people in Merced. We have enough housing units for everyone but housing remains an issue because the capitalist system is a for-profit system.”

Other speakers included Sheng Xiong with Leadership Counsel, who drew issue with the city only putting state and federal dollars into affordable housing. “Your local tax dollars, your property taxes, your sales taxes, your permits, fines, licenses, everything, every cent that the city makes from your local taxes — none of that goes to affordable housing, let alone any housing,” said Xiong. “When you talk about what the city is doing, you’re doing the bare minimum. That money, if you used it for anything else, you’d be in violation. So you have to use that money for housing. We’re saying you’re not doing anything on top of that.”

Other resident’s present at the meeting, however, pushed back against the subject, noting that they saw the issue of unaffordable housing as something that stemmed from the UC Merced campus becoming more established in the community and the accompanying rise in housing prices.

Councilwoman Bertha Perez elaborated on this idea, saying that “We have to take into account the impact the university has created by bringing over 9,000 students and not building adequate housing. If we didn’t have to absorb the impact of trying to house these students that are coming into our town, and held the university accountable and told them they needed to build housing … we would have a lot more room and a lot more housing available to the residents.”

Councilman Echevarria signaled that while he does view the UC as a good institution overall, he agrees with the assessment made by councilwoman Perez. “The UC needs to step up. They’ve got money, they’ve got lots of money — they need to invest that money in housing their students as well.”

As the subject came to a close, Mayor Serratto pointed out the city’s intent to annex approximately 1,000 acres surrounding UC Merced and have worked with developers to help support approximately 8,000 housing units. “We’re looking forward to those projects coming online as well — that’s going to be a big big deal with UC housing supply,” he said.

Resident Rick Wendling discussed additional points of contention he had with the idea of the city involving itself in the housing market as he made his way up to the podium as the second to last speaker of the night.

“I’m sorry,” Wendling said. “I have some bad news for a lot of you people out here, but housing is not a human right. It’s not even a constitutional right. If you don’t do anything that people are willing to pay for, you are a drain on the society. The city has an obligation to spend whatever tax money comes in to do something that is constitutional, and that means it benefits all people here in Merced.”

Those interested in attending the next Merced Town Hall meeting can do so this Thursday, Feb. 17, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. The meeting will be held in Council Chambers at the Civic Center, located at 678 W. 18th Street. Community members can attend in person or virtually. Virtual participants can submit questions online before and during each meeting at: cityofmerced.org/townhall. To view the video and listen to the sessions live, go to the City’s website cityofmerced.org. To access closed caption language translation, follow the prompts at cityofmerced.org/townhall. Participants can also view and listen to the sessions on Facebook Live, Comcast Public Access Channel 96, or AT&T 99.

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