The five Merced County supervisors have a pool of discretionary funds worth more than half a million dollars after slowing their spending of the special board project money in the 2015-16 fiscal year, records show.
In the year that ended June 30, supervisors spent $250,199.87 on special projects, down about $20,000 from the previous fiscal year.
Under the county’s policies, each supervisor is granted $40,000 every fiscal year to spend as they please on special projects to benefit the county or their district. Any unused money is rolled over into the supervisor’s account for the next fiscal year.
As of Monday, the board cumulatively has $556,630.71 to spend.
In 2015-16, District 1 Supervisor John Pedrozo granted the most requests, but District 5 Supervisor Jerry O’Banion gave the most money.
Pedrozo gave to more than 25 groups, including the Merced SPCA, high school sober grad night events, the Boys & Girls Club, and other county events. His expenditures ranged from $500 to $5,000 and totaled $38,697.
O’Banion, on the other hand, had eight expenditures totaling $95,013.41. He gave more than $47,000 to Dos Palos Memorial Hospital, $25,000 for county library landscaping and more than $9,000 for the youth football program in Dos Palos.
District 3 Supervisor Daron McDaniel spent the least of the supervisors at $15,706. McDaniel made discretionary funds a campaign issue when he ran for election in 2014. Since then, his policy has been to spend the money only on “sticks and bricks” projects, such as fixing the ceiling in the Atwater veterans hall and for graffiti abatement.
McDaniel believes if the money isn’t used, it should be put back into the general fund.
District 2 Supervisor Hub Walsh ended the fiscal year with the largest balance: $232,772.09. He inherited much of that balance when elected in 2008. He spent $57,349.44 in the last fiscal year, making a $25,000 expenditure for library landscaping and nearly $10,000 for shelving and a storage room for the Merced Theatre Foundation.
Deidre Kelsey, supervisor for District 4, spent $43,178.88. Her largest expenditures were for chairs for the Al Goman Community Center in Gustine and the Winton Cowboys, a youth football league. She had more than $32,000 roll over into the current budget.
Organizations can request funding from the supervisors. The requests are reviewed by county counsel and sometimes the Public Works Department before being placed on the agenda for board approval.
The funds became a campaign issue ahead of the June primary. Livingston Mayor Rodrigo Espinoza was among the candidates who criticized the special projects money, calling it a “slush fund” and vowing to give his entire sum to the Sheriff’s Office if elected. Espinoza, who defeated incumbent John Pedrozo for the District 1 seat, will take office in 2017.
The Merced County grand jury issued a report on the funds in July and made several recommendations to increase transparency and make it easier for organizations to access the funds, suggestions the Board of Supervisors discussed during its budget meeting last month. The recommendations included creating written policies and procedures for the request process, requiring an application form, creating a follow-up process to ensure the money is used correctly, and having information on the availability of money online.
McDaniel and O’Banion are slated to meet and discuss what changes, if any, the board should make based on the grand jury’s recommendations. Their decisions could be presented to the board for possible action as early as this month.
During the board’s September budget meeting, Pedrozo asked that any proposed changes be brought to the board before he and Kelsey leave office at the end of the year.
Pedrozo said he didn’t think the process was deceiving. “I don’t know how much more transparent we can be,” he said. “We keep bringing this up all the time. ... I think we are being transparent.”
Kelsey said she has no problem with the grand jury’s recommendations, but wondered whether an application process would be a hurdle for senior groups.
McDaniel said the money is a priority for many of his constituents, who are against the funding altogether. He agreed with the grand jury’s recommendation of making information available online, which he said also would give more people a fair shot at receiving the money.
“A lot of people don’t understand what’s going on with the funds,” he said.
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477