Town hall attendees say more money needed for youth

tmiller@mercedsunstar.comFebruary 13, 2014 

About 100 people in south Merced came to Wednesday night’s town hall-style meeting with a seemingly unified message for the Merced City Council: Find money in the budget for youth.

Unlike last month’s town hall meeting in north Merced, where the crowd about equaled city officials and staff in the room, this week’s meeting at Tenaya Middle School drew a full house. Speaker after speaker urged the council to fund more programs for children in the city.

“Everybody says, ‘Kids are important’ or ‘Kids are a priority,’ ” Tony Slaton, 53, of Merced said. “But I don’t get that (impression) when I travel through the community.”

Slaton said he was speaking as a person who lives in Merced and as someone who works for the community as the executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Merced County.

Slaton was one of many people who asked the city to spend more money on activities and job-skills programs for youngsters.

South Merced father of three Tsia Xiong asked the council to earmark 3 percent of the city’s cash toward those programs. He’s also director of the Merced Organizing Project. He asked those in the room who care about children to stand up. Everyone did.

“All of us have an agreement, the only thing we are in a disagreement (about) is the budget,” the 43-year-old said. “I always get the answers, ‘We don’t have money.’ ”

After the housing bubble burst and recession hit Merced, the city was faced with several years of budget shortfalls. City staff saw layoffs, and services for the Parks and Recreation Department were slashed.

Also imploring the council for money for youth projects in town was Janique Johnson, a 21-year-old Merced College student. Johnson said she grew up in Merced, and during her youth was involved in programs that kept her out of trouble and allowed her to succeed.

Johnson sits in the student seat on the Merced College Board of Trustees. “It’s all because somebody invested in me,” she said. “So please consider the youth – not just a little – but big in the budget this time around.”

Another speaker Wednesday, Marilyn Mochel, said her concerns lie in the health of young people on the south side of town. Mochel said she’s been a registered nurse in the community since 1980.

She pointed to a Public Policy Institute of California report on poverty, which said Merced County has the highest rate of childhood poverty in the state – 30 percent. Latinos and blacks have higher poverty rates in the state as opposed to whites and Asians, the report stated.

“Without subsidized or low-cost sports programs, many families can’t afford a sports program,” the 62-year-old said. “So we need the city to demonstrate their commitment.”

Those athletics programs could help to produce healthier children, she said.

The meeting offered a decidedly different tone than last month’s meeting in north Merced, where one audience member asked for infrastructure to fix sidewalks in south Merced and another talked about changing Merced’s slogan, “Gateway to Yosemite.” Another resident, who expressed her concerns over police policy, repeated those views at this week’s meeting.

The focus Wednesday was primarily on providing services for youth as a method to prevent them from joining gangs and to improve their job opportunities.

Mayor Stan Thurston said many of the concerns about young people were echoed from last year’s town hall meeting in south Merced. The mayor said he has met with organizers since then, and work is being done to get programs together.

Thurston said the city is “on the road to recovery” and will begin to have some more cash. “You all know we have a finite amount of money,” he said. “We’re never going to have enough to satisfy all the demands.”

In the meantime, Thurston said it will take effort and ideas from the council and community members to start some of the needed programs. He pointed to a program that began this week that will attempt to get business owners to accept a high school-aged intern for a few work hours after school.

There has been some headway on projects on the south side.

Merced Economic Development Director Frank Quintero updated the crowd on a project many residents in the area have asked for. He said the city is working on getting a 34,000-square-foot shopping center that would include a grocery store at Childs Avenue and Canal Street.

The City Council has changed the designation of the site, which was set for housing, to neighborhood commercial to ready it for development. Quintero said he’s met with two interested developers, and he expects to hear from a third next month.

The city is using a state incentive called California FreshWorks, which offers low interest rates and on-the-job training programs, Quintero said.

South Merced has also benefited from a $2.6 million upgrade to McNamara Park that is underway. The City Council applied last month for a $719,467 grant for a face-lift on Stephen Leonard Park.

The meeting this week, as well as last month’s, also featured presentations on a couple of efforts active in Merced.

The first presentation was on the free PulsePoint smartphone application, which teaches people how to administer “hands only” CPR and reportedly takes about five minutes to learn. The app also alerts users when someone goes into sudden cardiac arrest within half a mile of their location.

The other presentation featured Merced Ceasefire, an effort led by area pastors and deacons that asks people to spend two hours a week walking in a group through neighborhoods wrought with violence and crime.

Ceasefire is about a year old and is beginning to expand beyond the first walking route.

Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or tmiller@mercedsunstar.com.

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