Merced County supervisor candidates talk economy

Mnorth@mercedsunstar.comMay 9, 2012 

When five supervisorial candidates are put in one room to discuss issues facing the county, the needs acknowledged are simple and unanimous: Jobs, education and safety.

However, the process for obtaining those goals has proven to be elusive at times.

During a forum Tuesday night, the League of Women Voters of Merced County prompted the supervisor hopefuls to detail how they would pull Merced County out of the economic hole it's been in during recent years.

While the strived-for destination is the same for all the candidates, the ways to get there often vary.

As they tried to garner support in anticipation of the upcoming June 5 election, each candidate stressed the importance of jobs and new business in the County.

Daniel Varela, a former Livingston mayor who's vying for the District 1 supervisor's seat, talked about the importance of being friendlier to business, while District 1 incumbent Supervisor John Pedrozo pointed toward two major economic stimulants already in the county.

Merced County is trying to be more business-friendly, and the California High-Speed Rail system and UC Merced are two job creators that will help the county improve its economy.

Jim Pacheco, a sheriff's sergeant and District 1 candidate, drew on his law enforcement experience to explain how jobs and public safety play off each other.

"I know that two of the big issues facing Merced County today are public safety and unemployment," Pacheco said. "As a law enforcement officer, I know that one of the best crime-prevention tools is a good job."

In neighboring District 2, which covers much of the city of Merced, incumbent Hub Walsh said the county needs to create a climate for entrepreneurs while understanding the importance of being friendly toward small business.

"Government really doesn't create jobs, it creates a climate by which entrepreneurs might come to our community and create those jobs," he said, adding that 80 percent of the employers in Merced County are small businesses.

Walsh's opponent in District 1 is Casey Steed, an electrical contractor who has served as a reserve police officer for 28 years.

He stressed the importance of having an educated work force and improving the attitude within the county toward business.

Beyond stressing better education and having a business-friendly attitude, the candidates drew a consensus on the importance of Castle Commerce Center -- the former Air Force base now owned by the county.

It has proven a difficult task for county officials as they try to market the area and develop it.

Developing roads and other infrastructure to support the site is a chief item that needs to be addressed before Castle's economic potential is realized, according to the candidates.

All agree that the Merced-Atwater expressway would go a long way toward improving possibilities for Castle, but other proposed infrastructure projects looming in Merced's future are more polarizing for the group.

While Pedrozo supports the idea of high-speed rail, Steed, Varela and Pacheco don't see the project as favorably. Walsh thinks county supervisors should serve as advocates when it comes to the sprouting infrastructure.

Steed described the project as "high-speed pork" rather than high-speed rail and said the board should stand in opposition to it, claiming the plan has developed into something other than what voters approved.

More than 60 people attended the forum Tuesday.

Geri Brown, a member of the League of Women Voters who moderated the event, said her organization tries to have one before every local election.

Despite efforts by the League of Women Voters, District 1 candidate Peggi Gioletti couldn't be contacted and missed the forum.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsunstar.com.

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