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October 4, 2013

As election looms, area leaders talk about Merced’s goals

With Election Day in Merced a month away, what are the big issues in town? The story will pick the brain of area leaders.

The next wave of Merced City Council members will be faced with spurring development in the city, while making planning decisions, according to some area leaders.

Jessica L. Trounstine, a political science professor at UC Merced, said the city is facing many of the same problems as any municipality since the late 1800s – “They’re strapped for cash,” she said.

“There’s always a tension between maintaining the right mix of taxation and expenditure to keep everybody happy,” Trounstine said.

Merced has the added financial troubles of having faced high foreclosure rates and Proposition 13, the 1978 law that requires a two-thirds vote to raise taxes. Merced also has a relatively low median income at $36,269.

Troustine said every city is faced with the same challenge of meeting the day-to-day costs that make a city go.

“With very high unemployment rates, when property values are low, meeting those basic needs is vastly more challenging,” Trounstine said.

Since Merced is a mid-size city, she said, the city leaders need more experience and a better understanding of city finances than its smaller counterparts.

Merced Councilwoman Mary-Michal Rawling, who is not running for election after her term ends this year, said city planning is going to be an important issue for the new council. She pointed to the revitalization of Martin Luther King Jr. Way, the “critical” zoning update plan and the climate action plan, among others.

Rawling said planning for the Bellevue Road corridor, which is a main thoroughfare to UC Merced, will also be important.

“That’s going to outline and really set the tone for how the UC and the city cooperatively work together and grow together,” she said. “It’s going to be in the best interests of both the city and the UC.”

The elected members of council will need to carve out adequate time for the “essentially volunteer” position, Rawling said.

Councilman Mike Murphy, whose term continues through 2015, said long-term financial planning will be a concern for the next council.

As development in the city begins to return, he said, it will be important to manage it responsibly. That includes encouraging infill projects where there are vacancies in Merced, and revitalizing downtown, Murphy said.

“And, I think reducing panhandlers is going to be an important job for the council and for the city,” he said.

Much expansion is expected toward UC Merced. On the other end of town lies south Merced, which is densely populated.

Nonprofit Building Healthy Communities youth coordinator Michelle Xiong focuses on south Merced, as well as a few other areas in town.

Creating jobs and slashing crime are issues in south Merced as they are in the rest of the city, Xiong said. However, she said the council should take a look at how the environment affects the health of its citizens.

South Merced has a prevalence of liquor stores, she said, and many of the dilapidated sidewalks make it difficult for residents to walk and get exercise. Those things also make it less appealing to developers.

“Those are things that impact people’s health,” Xiong said. “Those are things that make the community look less aesthetically beautiful.”

Developing the city is going to take some innovative thinking, she said.

“I think it’s going to take a leader who has that willingness and determination to find new ways of using money we already have.” she said.

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