Time running out to find youth cash in Merced

tmiller@mercedsunstar.comJune 11, 2014 

Time is running out for youth advocates to persuade the Merced City Council to put aside some extra cash for services that benefit young people as the proposed budget is scheduled to be adopted Monday.

Though the advocates have been the loudest voices at every budget study session, the council has struggled to come up with a feasible plan that all members like. City staff has presented some options for cutting funding in several departments, and they’re expected to present more options at a budget study session at 5 p.m. Monday at City Hall, 678 W. 18th St.

Trimming other departments might fund programs this year, but it’s unclear if that would continue into coming years, Councilman Kevin Blake said. “It has to be something that we can sustain,” he said. “If it’s not, in my opinion, (we’re) not being good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars.”

He noted that there has been some progress with offerings for young people in Merced: McNamara Park is nearing the end of a $2.6 million upgrade using state money; the Salvation Army is in discussions with the city to provide supervision for the recreation building at Stephen Leonard Park; and a proposal for a youth council is advancing.

Any changes to the proposed budget would require trade-offs, according to city staff. Blake said he hasn’t decided whether he’ll vote for trade-offs, but said there could be room in some departments for cuts.

Council members and youth advocates agree that services for young people are beneficial, but they have not agreed how far to dig into other departments.

Andres Reyes, whose nonprofit We’Ced works with young people, has been to nearly every budget meeting to push for some extra cash.

City Council funding can’t solve all of the problems facing underrepresented young people in Merced, Reyes said, but money plays a part in solutions. “We do think that for a long time the city has neglected its role,” he said.

Reyes is also part of Invest in Our Youth, a coalition of nonprofit organizations pooling resources to lobby for youth recreation and job-skills programs. That group plans to gather about 4 p.m. Monday in Bob Hart Square to push for support.

The budget, which is about 1.5 percent larger than last year’s, has $40.7 million in discretionary money from the general fund and Measure C dollars.

Councilman Michael Belluomini said the council should not rush to program the money, but could identify as much as $200,000 for programs for young people. “I don’t think we need to confuse setting aside money with arriving at a decision on exactly what the program is going to be,” he said.

The council could pick out how much money it wants to redirect to youth services while adopting the budget, Belluomini said, and could program the money later after further study. He said funding for new programs would likely be available as outside experts and city staff are predicting Merced’s economy will continue to improve.

Councilman Josh Pedrozo declared at the June 2 meeting that he would not vote to approve changes to the proposed budget that create programs without sustainable funding or would cut employees. “I think it (would be) 100 percent irresponsible on our part,” he said.

That sentiment has been echoed by others on the council.

Reyes said youth advocates have tried to make it clear they do not expect any city employee to be laid off in favor of youth programs. “I think that rhetoric is definitely a distraction, definitely a tactic to vilify the issue,” Reyes said.

The proposed budget is available at www.cityofmerced.org.

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

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