A day after the extended Fourth of July holiday weekend, some Merced residents emerged from their homes, shaking their heads, still determined to speak up about the chaos in the skies they endured for days on end.
“It was a war zone,” said Marsha Vomastek who made it to the Merced City Council on Tuesday night. “I could see it right outside my house. I’m pretty sure they were in an intersection, so who are you going to fine? It’s just terrifying.”
This year, the City of Merced and its Fire Department employed a new strategy — fine the property owners where the illegal activity is taking place, not the perpetrators.
And they had plenty of action to respond to as calls for service went up dramatically in recent days, climaxing on July 4th. On the holiday itself, the Fire Department responded to 60 calls, including 19 fires, and one structure fire at a home near Joerg Avenue and Mirror Lake Drive. Officials say the home’s shake roof was destroyed within minutes after illegal fireworks ignited it.
In all, 36 fires were reported over the four-day period, with many linked to both illegal and so-called Safe & Sane fireworks that were on sale throughout the city. Some of the fires were associated with fireworks disposal. Two Merced homes nearly caught on fire when used fireworks were actually soaked in a water bucket briefly and then disposed of in a trash bin, according to one fire official. Used fireworks should soak in a bucket for 12 hours, he noted.
Meanwhile on July 4th, 213 law-abiding citizens lit up the city’s call center (133 calls), the Merced Connect App (70 reports), the Celebrate Safe email address (10 messages).
Vomastek was one of them, and she praised the city’s new reporting services, saying the response was incredible. However, she had nothing but disdain for the illegal fireworks and the people who set them off.
“I discovered there’s an awful lot of people — not just in Merced — but in the entire state who think they are being patriotic by terrorizing their neighbors, endangering their property,” she told city leaders. “And as far as I know, there is no right to set off fireworks and terrify your neighbors. It’s a privilege that they get to set off any fireworks at all. And privileges can be taken away.”
Catching those responsible is another story.
One Times reporter witnessed illegal fireworks being shot up into the air in the most brazen manner — atop the city’s own parking structures, right next to City Hall.
A resident watching the council meeting on Facebook, identified as Sean Pamer, noted that he had a drone flying up in the sky during the celebrations, and the illegal fireworks were “ALL OVER.”
“All zones of the city, no discerning from ‘rich’ or ‘poor’ neighborhoods, no color determinations, just all around!” he wrote. “Lots of taxpayer money spent, no revenue generated.”
A heat-sensor map produced by the Fire Department backed up the idea that no neighborhoods in the city were spared from the aerial free-for-all.
Fire Chief Derek Parker said at one point he was in the midst of an illegal fireworks cluster in the Bellevue Ranch area of north Merced.
“We couldn’t move without running into illegal firework activity,” he told leaders.
Nevertheless, there might be some revenue coming in from the enforcement side. Chief Parker said 71 citations were issued for illegal fireworks (48 linked to reports made by residents wielding the city’s mobile app).
Those citations are being sent to property owners where the activity was taking place. A first violation amounts to a $1,000 fine. But Parker did admit that in some cases, the property owner may be hard to reach. Owners are also entitled to arbitration proceedings if they feel they have been wrongly charged.
The Police and Fire departments reportedly confiscated between 1,500 and 2,000 illegal fireworks in recent days.
“It’s noticeable how cheap the illegal fireworks are,” Chief Parker commented.
Despite the outlawed party in the sky, council members praised the effort by their own public safety forces.
“Your actions were notable, admirable and appreciated,” Councilman Delray Shelton told Chief Parker. “This is becoming an overwhelming problem throughout the years. While some look forward to celebrating, many dread the day. Although we know you don’t have the ability to catch everyone. The work you guys have done, and continue to do, is appreciated.”
So the Merced City Council is moving forward with a new Rental Inspection Program by way of an ordinance that’s in its final stages of drafting and on the verge of becoming a reality.
The notable part of this program is that it aims to cover all rental properties / units in the city — from large multifamily complexes, to Section 8 housing, to your average single family home.
Oh, and there are fees and penalties for the owners.
These interior inspections are not to be confused with already established mandated fire inspections related to businesses.
City officials say the programs aims to improve substandard occupancies. One of its biggest challenges, however, is the monumental task of creating a Rental Registry that would log the number of overall rental housing units in the city — including single family homes and rented rooms inside residential homes where owners are not required to have a business license.
The fees being approved by leaders include $8.33 a month for an inspected single family home (Owners can “self certify” for $10.42.). Fees for multifamily locations vary, with sizable complexes that include many units having lower monthly rates.
Officials have not elaborated on the cost of potential penalties for owners who do not participate.
The Fire Department will be receiving funding and revenue to keep the program going, as well as hiring a person to be in charge of the Rental Registry.
They say similar programs have already been enacted by the cities of Fresno, Stockton and Sacramento. Modesto is said to be in the process of working on one of its own too.
A new ordinance to enforce the program will be presented at the Aug. 2 Merced City Council meeting. This will be a public hearing for those landlords who are interested in speaking up about it. So far, there hasn’t been much public comment in opposition to the plan.
Groups such as the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability based in Fresno, and the Downtown Neighborhood Association in Merced favor the strategy.
Another significant ordinance that will be under final review on Aug. 2, will be the city’s revised Street and Sidewalk Vendor Ordinance.
The plan supported by the council is in response the the State Legislature’s SB946 bill that provides support to sidewalk vendors, recognizes their contributions to create more “vibrant communities,” and eliminates associated criminal penalties.
A number of changes need to be made to get Merced in compliance with SB946, along with some modifications city officials want to make.
Among the changes:
- The city will ease vendor application requirements, as well as penalties for failure to obtain a permit. Permits, however, can still be revoked by the city.
- Sidewalk vendors will not be restricted to operate in areas except when there is a “health, safety, or welfare” concern (which may include blockage of pedestrian and vehicle right of way, or hindering access to fire hydrants, etc.). That opens up sidewalks to street vendors in minor and major business zones across the city. Sidewalk vendors can also roam free in residential zones, however, the city can ban “stationary” vendors who tend to park for long periods of time.
- Hours of operation for vendors in residential zones is set to be 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. There is no apparent time restrictions for vendors in commercial and other public areas.
- Sidewalk vendors will be able to sell food and drink, as well as other goods and merchandise, near other businesses, either mobile or brick & motor, with no distance restrictions except with regard to safety regulations. “Perceived community animus or economic competition does not constitute an objective health, safety, or welfare concern.” So, for example, its possible that a food cart selling coffee and donuts can set up shop just outside the Starbucks on R Street or Coffee Bandits on Main Street. There’s also no restrictions on the number of stationary street vendors in any given public area outside residential areas as long as safety guidelines are followed.
These are just some of the details in an ordinance that details many aspects of street and sidewalk vending.
Interested business owners, homeowners and residents may want to check out this discussion. There’s going to be a public hearing before leaders vote on it.
In Other News:
- The Merced City Council voted 4-2 on Tuesday night to consolidate all of its tax measure oversight committees into just one overall committee. The single panel will consist of volunteer community members keeping tabs on things like Measure C (public safety) and Measure Y (cannabis). Council members Fernando Echevarria and Bertha Perez voted NO. Council member Jesse Ornales was not in attendance.
- Leaders also gave direction to make future appointments to both the Planning Commission and the Parks and Recreation Commission with representatives from all six of the city’s representative districts, as oppose to appointing in an “at large” fashion.
- And last but not least, the Merced City Council voted 4-2 to affirm their choice of Advanced Air — a commuter airline based in Hawthorne — as their favorite choice to take over this region’s Essential Air Service contract at the Merced Yosemite Regional Airport.
Advanced Air is promising affordable flights to the Los Angeles area, as well as Las Vegas, and significant investment in local marketing strategies.
The current carrier at the airport — Boutique Airlines — had petitioned the council to reconsider its decision on the ranking, and had been touting a major new investment plan at the airport.
Boutique is now considered the city’s second choice.
Council members Echevarria and Perez vote NO in the decision.