MERCED -- Merced County's Board of Supervisors' use of discretionary funds was at the forefront of scrutiny this past year, even becoming a key issue during November's runoff election.
Every year, $40,000 is allotted to each supervisor to use at their discretion, usually for community projects and nonprofit organizations.
A few examples of expenditures this year include the McNamara Pool, Tri-City Youth Football and community cleanup projects.
The use of the funds began in the late 1990s with $100,000 per supervisor, and later was decreased to $70,000 because of budget constraints.
It was eventually reduced again to the current amount, said Merced County Chief Executive Officer Jim Brown.
Despite public criticism, some supervisors have defended the discretionary dollars, saying the funds allow them to support organizations that may otherwise not receive assistance.
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.
Still, many questions remain, including how the organizations are selected, whether the money rolls over each year, and how much each supervisor has in his or her account.
Brown said each supervisor receives the $40,000 at the beginning of the fiscal year. The money is added as part of the county's overall budget. Any unused dollars from the previous year's discretionary funds are rolled over.
In the most current report ending in October, the five districts had a combined balance of $622,739.59. District 1, represented by John Pedrozo, had a balance of $73,994.72; District 2, represented by Hub Walsh, had $151,853.48; District 3, represented by Linn Davis, had $74,052.50; District 4, represented by Deidre Kelsey, had $89,620.96; District 5, represented by Jerry O'Banion, had $233,217.93.
Brown said the money is meant to help underserved parts of the county, many of them unincorporated areas that do not get services.
"This is a way to get dollars out to smaller communities who are taxpayers also," Brown said. "If we didn't do this, some of the needs in the community would not be met."
However, there are some requirements about how the money can be used.
"It has to be something that's considered public expenditure with a benefit to the community," Brown said.
Because the supervisors have the best idea about what their community needs, Brown said, they make the decision on where -- and how much -- they want to spend, as long as it's a legitimate public expenditure.
The item goes to the county counsel, then appears on the meeting agenda with the supervisors casting a vote to approve the expenditure. If an expenditure doesn't appear to serve a public purpose, it won't be voted on, Brown said.
"There have been times where we want to make sure the expenditure is for a public purpose -- or it doesn't go on the agenda," he said.
Brown acknowledged the concerns about the discretionary dollars, but said the county receives just as many letters and phone calls from people supporting the funds, saying it's the only way their needs will be met.
Still, many residents say the taxpayer money -- a combined $200,000 a year -- should go back into the general fund, especially in light of the county's strained budget.
How to spend money
In the final budget for fiscal year 2012-13, the county reduced its deficit of $10 million and used $1.6 million in one-time revenues carried over from 2011 to patch up the shortfall.