Merced County Supervisors on Tuesday dissolved a contentious budget practice that split $200,000 between each supervisor annually for “special board projects.”
After bitter dispute during the county’s final budget hearing on Tuesday, supervisors voted 3-2 to keep whatever money they already have in their accounts. But, they won’t receive the controversial funds in future budgets. Supervisors Rodrigo Espinoza and Lee Lor, who both were elected last year, voted to keep the funding practice, while Supervisors Daron McDaniel, Lloyd Pareira and Jerry O’Banion voted to end it.
Each year, the board splits the $200,000, with each supervisor receiving $40,000 in public money to spend as they see fit on community projects or programs or to help nonprofits. The previous board in December adopted new policies, which included putting the money back in the general fund if it wasn’t used. The board must approve spending of discretionary funding, but individual supervisors nominate projects to receive funding.
Supporters of the fund have said the money allows the supervisors to bolster community organizations working to help residents in need or programs that made a positive difference in Merced County. Critics have blasted the practice as a public slush fund with little or no oversight that allowed supervisors to do favors for politically-supportive groups at the taxpayers’ expense.
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McDaniel has been a vocal critic of the money throughout his first term and has made several attempts to make the process more transparent and keep groups accountable when they receive the money. McDaniel has only used money from his discretionary account a handful of times for things such as cleaning up graffiti and repairing Atwater’s veterans hall.
The vote came after both O’Banion and Espinoza made alternative suggestions that failed to pass a vote. O’Banion first suggested the policy remain the same. Espinoza suggested amending the current policy so that unused money would remain available instead of rolling back into the general fund.
Pareira hoped the supervisors would agree to do away with current and future funds. He also said he would like to try out the new December policy for a full year before making any other decisions regarding the money.
Espinoza said he would have supported the move to do away with the money, but he already committed to joining Lor in the participatory budgeting process for the money.
Espinoza and Lor planned to use the new process to allocate $160,000 from their districts during the next two years through a steering committee made up of residents. Residents could brainstorm ideas for community projects, develop them into proposals and then vote on which projects will be funded.
“I have an obligation to the citizens of my district. You can let a lot of people down,” he said. “They’re very hopeful in this process.”
Espinoza also criticized McDaniel and accused McDaniel of pushing the issue ahead of an election year after past failures to do away with the money. McDaniel fired back, saying he was working to keep a campaign promise to do away with the funding practice and noted that Espinoza made the same campaign promise.
During his campaign, Espinoza called the money a “slush fund” and said he would vote to end the practice. Following his election, however, Espinoza opted, instead, to throw his money in with Lor for special community projects. On Tuesday, he voted to keep the fund going.
“People voted for us because of the promises we made to the people,” McDaniel said. “We represent everybody in our district. So If you want to direct that comment to me, I take that as a badge of honor. I represent my district, and I do what I say I’m going to do.”
O’Banion acknowledged the decision wouldn’t affect him politically since he’s not seeking re-election. He also said he believed the money was an important part of county government.
After the meeting, Lor turned to social media to express her disappointment in the decision.
“A sad day,” she said. “It will be a sad year for our community residents, our community projects and our community benefit organizations who would have enhanced their learning with these dollars.”
The $200,000 previously planned for the newly-approved budget will be rolled back into the general fund, said Mike North, a county spokesman.
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477