MERCED — Advocates for youth services continue to keep the pressure on city leaders, rallying outside of the Civic Center before attending Tuesday night's public budget hearing.
About 50 youths joined by organizers from nonprofit Building Healthy Communities gathered to ask the city to dedicate 3 percent of discretionary spending or almost $1 million to youth services.
"I came out here to support the city giving the youth more money for youth programs sports, maybe some kind of youth nightclub," said Merced College student Skylar Francise, 19. "Give the youth something to do because we really lack that here in town."
The recreation and community services account, which includes programs such as youth sports, the Boys and Girls Clubs and the McNamara Pool, would receive $693,543 in discretionary spending under the proposed budget.
While that's a roughly 22 percent increase over last year, it doesn't offset cuts in recent years, said Tatiana Vizcaino-Stewart of Building Healthy Communities.
"Youth services have been disproportionately cut over recent years," she said. "There has to be a more equitable way of sharing the burden."
City staff said that increasing the recreation and community services budget to 3 percent of discretionary spending would likely require layoffs.
"I think everyone up here would like to write a check for a million dollars for youth programs," said Mayor Stan Thurston. "We have to realize whatever we give to that, we have to get from somewhere else. We don't have a credit card."
Public employees, who recently agreed to significant cuts in pay and benefits, reminded the council that several union contracts were expiring at the end of the year.
"We have to build the future of our Police Department, as well," said Joe Deliman, Merced Police Officers Association president. "We too are going to ask for things back in these negotiations. Not a whole lot of things, but we have to start slowly."
During last year's budget, the city's police and firefighter's unions agreed to $1.26 million in concessions.
"We as employees made the concessions to get us here," said Chad Englert, president of the Merced Firefighters' Union. "That's why there are discretionary funds that allow the council some wiggle room this year."
"We have our own issues within the city that need to be taken care of before we start branching out and giving more and more and more to youth programs," he added.
The City Council seemed to be somewhat split on the issue of adding more funding for youth services in this year's budget.
"Youth services, yeah, I understand that, but there has to be a plan," said Councilman Tony Dossetti. "Where do they want the money to go? Just to say, 'give me 3 percent of the discretionary funds,' and not have a plan for it is not acceptable."
Councilwoman Mary-Michal Rawling said she'd like to hear from city staff what specific programs could use more funding.
"It's all about public safety," she said. "The more opportunity you give to young people to not go down a bad path, the less you have to depend on policing in the future. That will be a long-term budget savings and an overall improvement in our quality of life."
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.