Merced Mayor Mike Murphy commented recently that being a member of the City Council sometimes means being a punching bag for dissatisfied residents.
On Monday night, that seemed like an understatement as the council was repeatedly pummeled with verbal attacks about the character and actions of individual council members, and heated criticism about city policies. No elected leader on the dais was spared, as well as one who was absent.
COVID-19 pandemic protocols, attendance capacity, traditional decorum and rules for addressing the council suddenly vanished and were replaced by a group of upset residents — including many young adults — who lined the back aisles of the council chamber and walked freely to and from the podium. Some used swear words to get their points across.
Several of the residents were members of the Merced People of Color, and they were joined by others who are mourning the death of George Floyd — an unarmed black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer pinned him to the ground for nearly nine minutes. Together, the locals demanded reforms in law enforcement procedures and the diversion of public safety funds in the city budget to programs that target communities and neighborhoods in need of basic services and youth activities.
Also, some called for the resignation of Councilman Fernando Echevarria due to recent actions and comments he made at a town hall meeting in which the leader attemped to demonstrate a chokehold that he felt should be banned, and then later verbally sparred with some of the organizers. There was widespread criticism of the display as being insensitive to those in attendance. Others called for the resignation of Councilman Kevin Blake due in part to a bar fight incident he was involved in back in 2018.
It became the second consecutive marathon meeting of the council that lasted until midnight.
When all was said and done, the City Council voted unanimously to pass a $265 million budget for fiscal year 2020-21, remarkably with no layoffs despite millions of dollars in lost tax revenue due to the pandemic and its devastating blow to the local economy.
The adopted budget is an increase of $10.8 million from last fiscal year, including $43.9 million in budgeted revenues for the General Fund.
While there were no layoffs, several city staff positions were left “un-funded,” including a Lead Dispatcher, a Senior Police Officer and a Firefighter in the public safety sector, along with a few others in administration, public works and parks.
With the obvious tension in the room concerning budget support for public safety versus parks and recreation, Mayor Murphy quickly proposed allocating 60 percent of the Measure Y “cannabis tax revenue” funds collected so far by the city to go to the latter department, instead of the previously listed near-even split of the funds between police, fire, and parks and rec.
The result was an additional $276,000 added to Parks and Recreation. However, the apparent impromptu budget wrangling also included back-filling the expected Measure Y revenue for police and fire with reserve funding located in the city’s Revenue Stabilization Fund.
“I think this conversation needs to be about adding, and not subtracting,” Murphy reasoned with a hint of uncharacteristic nervousness and/or caution in his voice. “We’ve put money away for a rainy day … It’s raining … And I think we make it balanced with a little bit of rainy day fund. … We need to have, and we are having, and we will continue to have conversations about the way that we police as a nation, as a state, and as a city. And those are policy changes. I can tell you those conversations are happening, and more important and broader conversations with the community need to happen as well. But the reality also we rub up against is if you decide to reduce salaries comparative to other places you become a magnet for washed-out cops, and I don’t want that for Merced.”
Finance Director Venus Rodriguez is expected to present a report on the Measure Y changes at a meeting later this summer.