Youth services at top of council to-do list

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comFebruary 26, 2013 

— The Merced City Council held its annual priority and goal-setting public meetings Friday and Saturday.

Council members said they heard a wide range of messages from the community, with concerns for youth services at the top of the list.

"The dominant message coming out of it was that they want more funding for youth services," said Councilman Bill Blake. "As we do our budget session, I think we'll be aware of that.

"I've had more people come to me after meetings lobbying for more money for youth programs," he added.

The message is nothing new, but this could be the year to fix it, said Councilwomen Mary-Michal Rawling.

"We've heard that since our budget process started last year: 'Where we're putting our money is not prioritizing activities for youth,' " she said. "I hope we can start."

This is about what the community wants, said Tisa Xiong, executive director for the Merced Organizing Project.

"We just want to make sure that youth services are improving this year," he said. "Because if you look at last year, youth services has been basically zero on the budget. Not just parks and rec funding; what we're talking about is money for providing youth-positive development."

Several ideas were floated, including bringing back an advisory commission for youth services.

"If someone has other ideas, please bring them forward," said Mayor Stan Thurston. "But this annual battle to get together woefully insufficient funds for these things has to stop."

Alyssa Castro, a youth mentor with Venice Arts in Merced, expressed some frustration that city officials didn't commit to increased funding for youth services.

"People wanted answers about how much specifically of the budget was going to be spent on youth," she said. "The city didn't really give those answers. The city made it clear that they were willing to help, but there weren't a lot of details."

The mayor suggested instituting a property tax to help pay for youth and other community services.

"Here's the idea: Study how we can obtain reliable, consistent funding for the senior center, the youth center and youth services, the arts center and the zoo," he said.

However, the idea might lack public support, Rawling said. While she said she would have to see the specifics, she didn't rule out supporting the idea.

"I think if people get behind it and the details get worked out so it can be a successful, long-term source of funding, then I'm not going to stand in the way," she said.

Councilman Mike Murphy expressed some skepticism about a tax to support youth services.

"I'm waiting for the actual proposal to come forward," he said. "The devil's in the details. There'd have to be a really strong reason for me to support it."

The meeting was held in the Sam Pipes room of City Hall. The setting was informal, with audience members making comments from their seats.

The event was facilitated by former City Manager Jim Marshall. City department heads were in attendance.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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