Advocates push for Merced youth programs

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comMay 26, 2013 

— As community advocates continued to push this week for more money for youth services, sympathetic city leaders turned out empty pockets.

Advocates are calling for the city's proposed budget to allocate 3 percent of general fund spending or $976,597 to youth services. The city has proposed spending $693,542 for parks and community services.

"We know it's tough times," said Tsia Xiong, executive director of the Merced Organizing Project. "But we're not asking a lot. I'm sure there are going to be some cuts somewhere else. If there's a will, there's always a way to work out the numbers."

City Council members repeatedly voiced a desire to fund youth services but found little room in the budget to do so.

"We've been through this budget, combing through and looking under the couch cushions for several years now," Councilman Mike Murphy said. "We're not going to find $283,000 doing that. That's what we've done for the past five years and it's not there."

Advocates suggest the city could pay for youth services over the next fiscal year with $400,000 in one-time funding, proposed for a new firetruck — a suggestion city officials were reluctant to embrace.

The Fire Department has put off replacing roughly $2.5 million in equipment, said Fire Chief Mike McLaughlin.

"We're basically scratching the surface with (replacing) one engine," he said. "But we have to continue to move in that direction or it's going to continue to snowball and be more difficult to climb out of."

Mayor Stan Thurston commended the efforts of the community while lamenting the city's tight fiscal situation.

"We've asked for years and years, all the eight years I was on the council, 'Please come and participate in the budget,' " he said. "So we've finally got a whole bunch of people that want to do that, and we wind up with the same result, 'Sorry, we don't have any money.' There's just got to be a better way."

Councilman Bill Blake said he would like to revisit the issue with a potential "mid-year adjustment."

"I think the squeeze is terribly tight right now," he said. "And I think we all want to help everybody out, which is impossible to do. But we might be in a better situation over the next six months and have a better feel."

The city needs to encourage creative solutions to meeting the needs of the community, said Councilwoman Mary-Michal Rawling.

"We (could) give direction that says things like, 'We'd like our recreation supervisors and our Police Department to get together and say, who are the most at-risk youth that our officers are continually having to work with, and how can our Recreation Department intervene so our Police Department doesn't have to spend time doing that?' "

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

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