The distribution of taxpayer money to fund special projects in each Merced County supervisor's district has been a hot-button issue in the campaign between Supervisor John Pedrozo and opponent Jim Pacheco.
Each supervisor receives $40,000 a year of "discretionary funds" for uses ranging from community projects to helping civic improvement organizations.
But Pacheco this week sent a scathing news release criticizing his opponent for listing his accomplishments, made possible through discretionary funds, on his campaign mailers and Web site.
The release was the latest salvo in a war of words between the candidates in what has turned out to be one of the season's most contentious local elections.
In the release, Pacheco likened Pedrozo's behavior to "hustling re-election with taxpayer money."
Pacheco then went further.
"Despite significant cuts to public safety in this year's budget, the Board of Supervisors voted to continue their practice of doling out up to $40,000 each year for pet projects in their districts."
Asked about his news release this week, Pacheco stood by it, saying discretionary funds give incumbents an unfair advantage. "Because anyone running against him (Pedrozo) couldn't fund these projects unless they took the money out of their own pockets," Pacheco said. "He's using taxpayer money, then putting these accomplishments on his Web site or mailers to help his campaign, and it's with the discretionary funds."
Pedrozo acknowledged using some of the discretionary money to help organizations in his district.
But did he do anything illegal? Merced County isn't the only county in California that allots discretionary funds to its Board of Supervisors. San Bernardino, Los Angeles, San Diego, Kern and Riverside counties are among those that have discretionary funds.
The Fair Political Practices Commission in California regulates campaign financing and spending as well as conflicts of interest. Gary Winuk, chief of the FPPC enforcement division, said using discretionary funds to generate good will during election season "doesn't violate the Political Reform Act" but wouldn't comment on whether doing so constitutes an unfair advantage.
Is it all part of the politics game?
Keith Smith, assistant professor at the University of the Pacific, specializes in American government and is teaching a class about campaigns and elections this semester. He said the discretionary funds do provide an advantage, but it's all part of politics.
"If you're the challenger, it makes it harder to compete. But it's supposed to work that way for incumbents," Smith said. "Whether it's fair or not is beside the point. It's just part of what happens when people serve in government. There's no way to get rid of it because the person is doing their job. As an elected official you get to do these kinds of things."
Smith said the "incumbency advantage" can make a difference to voters on Election Day.
"It can make a difference if you care about the organizations he's helped out," Smith said. "Is it going to be the deciding factor? I don't know. It depends on a lot of different things. But it's better to have those positive associations than not."
Will how those dollars are used sway District 1 voters heading to the polls on Tuesday?
Filomena Sousa, principal at Livingston Middle School, said Pedrozo made a $500 allocation last year to the school's eighth-grade graduation after being approached by a parent.
"Making a $500 contribution doesn't mean his record is all good or all bad," Sousa said. "But for us being on the receiving end of something we were working for it certainly felt good. But I don't know that it would influence my voting."
Sousa said the school used the money to buy $10 gift cards for 50 of the 200 students attending the graduation dance.
"I wouldn't say it buys a vote, but our interactions influence our thoughts," Sousa added. "If you have a positive interaction with someone, you may have a positive image of that person."
Pedrozo said he doesn't allocate the money to garner a positive image, but because he believes in the organizations, which wouldn't otherwise receive funding.
On the flip side, Pacheco said although he supports the same community projects and called them "worthy," he said if he's elected supervisor, he'll find other ways to fund them, including grants and fund-raisers.
There are those who say discretionary fund allocations from a supervisor do sway how they vote. Laura Phillips, executive director at the Merced County Arts Council, said Pedrozo's support in the form of $500 to the Arts Alive program would likely influence her voting decision. "Certainly anyone who supports the arts I would personally vote for," said Phillips. "That shows me that he shares my concerns about what's important in the community."
The $500 allocation funded cash prizes in a competition for visual artists in which they were judged by local artist, Karen LeCocq.
One of the largest recipients of discretionary fund allocations in District 1 is the Bible Christian Nineveh Outreach in Le Grand, a non-denominational nonprofit that feeds more than 1,900 people a month. Pedrozo has donated $5,000 a year to the organization since it began nearly five years ago.
Director James Tesone said he's friends with both candidates in the race, calling them "good people," but said he wouldn't be swayed by the allocations made from Pedrozo's discretionary funds.
"I don't think it curries favor, because it's the kind of thing I would hope whoever took his place would be just as willing to offer," Tesone said. "If he would have said I didn't have a penny, he would still get my vote." Tesone said the money was used to buy nutritious foods and given to Le Grand and Planada residents two Saturdays a month.
MaryAnn McKissick, a community activist in Merced, takes a strong stand against Pedrozo using his discretionary funds for self-promotion in the campaign.
"It does put him at an unfair advantage if he uses taxpayer discretionary dollars to showcase his accomplishments," McKissick said. "If he's using taxpayer money to promote himself, especially the discretionary money, that's unethical."
Both Pedrozo and Pacheco support Tri-City Youth Football, an organization that serves children ranging from age 7 to 13.
Pedrozo allocated $2,500 from this year's discretionary fund, which the organization used to purchase helmets and shoulder pads. The money came just in time, as the group added 50 more children this year.
"I don't think he holds the funds over anyone's head," said Ben Esquivel, Tri-City's president. "I think if the shoe were on the other foot, and Jim had access to the discretionary funds, he would be taking advantage of it too."
Casey Steed, former candidate for supervisor in District 2, said the special funds should be eliminated, but he added that if they're not eliminated, the unused dollars shouldn't be rolled over year after year. "I believe that the funds should be used each year and not be carried over, or at least put back in the general fund," he said.
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.