Merced City Council candidates square off on the issues

10/07/2011 12:36 AM

10/10/2011 10:29 AM

Seven candidates running for three spots on the Merced City Council in the Nov. 8 municipal election dropped by the Sun-Star editorial board over the past two weeks to discuss the city's budget woes, prior decisions made by the council and bringing jobs and businesses to the community.

The four-year terms of council members Noah Lor, John Carlisle and Michele Gabriault-Acosta end this year, creating the openings.

The mayor's spot is also up for grabs. Gabriault-Acosta is termed out for her council position, and is running for mayor.

Sun-Star phone calls and letters to candidate Carl Pollard weren't returned.

The seven who spoke with the Sun-Star: Charles Bolin, Carlisle, Richard Cervantes, Tony Dossetti, Alex Gallardo Jr., Lor and Mike Murphy (the Sun-Star will profile each of these and the mayoral candidates beginning next week).

Here's what they told the Sun-Star's editorial board:

City budget

Most of the candidates agreed the budget would be the most troublesome issue to tackle in coming years. Carlisle, 64, an incumbent, called it "the big elephant in the room.

"As far as who would be left out in the reduction area, I don't think we can, on a practical basis, leave any group out," said Carlisle.

Cervantes, 29, wanted to get to a point at which public employee unions can fund themselves the way construction or trade unions do.

Dossetti, 61, who retired as chief of police after 30 years in the department, said they would need to "sit down and look at all the services the city offers, like contracting out to consultants." He said the city should contract out less because there are educated people who work in city administration. "We pay those guys to do the job," he said. Dossetti said a last resort would be raising taxes.

Gallardo doesn't want to see any more jobs cut; instead the city should figure out wise ways to use the money. The city could advertise itself with billboards to promote a more business-friendly atmosphere.

Meanwhile, incumbent Lor, 48, and a clinical therapist, said the city needs to build on the economic development strategy to bring more business in and get more tax revenue, so no more jobs are cut. "Every service is important," he said.

During a question about the city budget, public safety emerged as a topic of discussion for some of the candidates. Cervantes said the city would need to work hard not to lose any more services from police and fire. "It's going to be pick and choose at what other services we can get by without," he said.

Bolin, 25, agreed, saying the city should keep anything related to public safety. "No more cuts to fire, no more cuts to police," he said.

Carlisle's idea of public safety extended beyond police and fire. It includes supporting education and prevention efforts to keep people, especially kids, out of drugs and gangs that lead to crime.

Murphy, 32, foresees there'll be tough decisions to make on the council. "Everything has to be on the table because that's the only way the city can come up with a workable solution," he said. And once everything is on the table, he said it was important to recognize what the public prioritizes, which is public safety. There are items along the way that can be privatized, such as nonessential services.

"Like what we've done that already with the graffiti abatement program," Murphy said.

Facilities' impact fees

A point of consensus among more than half the candidates was the importance of the Merced Vision 2030 General Plan, which will influence public facilities' impact fees. The council last month extended a temporary reduction in those fees on commercial and residential development for another two years. The city uses the Merced Vision 2015 General Plan, which was adopted in 1997. The approval of the new plan will be on the City Council's agenda in the next few weeks.

Murphy said the plan "directly correlates to the permitting fees that we charge. I think we need a significant reduction in our fees."

Carlisle thinks the plan will impact ag land. "It's going to do a lot of other things but what it's also going to do is be very expensive," he said, adding that's going to be factored in when the city is looking at fee structures, today and down the road.

Bolin said the development fees need to be extended and "we need to audit all the fees."

"I think fees should not be discussed in the general plan, they should be regulated by the departments themselves," Bolin said.

Dossetti said the fees probably needed more review, while Lor suggested the time frame for the fees be longer than two years.

Council decisions

Some of the decisions and actions taken by the council in the past year elicited second-guessing from the candidates.

"There are a few I regret, not in terms of my vote but in terms of other people's votes," said Carlisle, with a chuckle. He noted there had been an ongoing series of discussions about fees and "some of those really concern me," he said.

Murphy, a small business attorney who grew up in Merced, said that a few decisions the council made were useful but didn't go far enough. One example was reviewing the public facilities impact fees.

Another good idea was the proposed sales tax measure that was going to be put on the November ballot, Murphy said. "They decided not to, but along the way there were decisions ... and I think that was a step in the wrong direction," Murphy said.

Murphy would like to bridge the gap between UC Merced and the community by having an innovation center, which could incubate agribusiness, health care and renewable energy.

Dossetti said the council shouldn't have cut positions earlier this year. "The council didn't think through what it would do to the morale of the work force because the morale is focused on 'will I have a job come next budget time?' " Dossetti said.

Gallardo regretted the council's decision to let the police and fire personnel go. "That really does hurt the morale of citizens," he said, adding that everyone could take a bit of a "hit, but no one would lose their jobs."

Bringing jobs

Trying to bring employers to the city has been an uphill battle, according to most candidates.

"We've been spectacularly unsuccessful in bringing in large employers," said Carlisle, adding the city has made substantial efforts in that area. "We have brought in some businesses but considering the time period and the resources involved, we haven't been terribly successful in that department."

"I think where we need to improve is focusing more on small businesses and bringing in more small businesses in and working to keep the small businesses we have," Carlisle said.

However, he said "the fact we have people who are willing to come in and take over where a previous business has failed is a positive sign in the small business world."

Dossetti thought the city was doing an "OK" job at bringing jobs to the community. But he said the city needs to be friendly with existing businesses if they want to expand or change their signage, for example. Another idea is to conduct economic development outreach efforts to make Merced more marketable to outside businesses, he said.

Lor said in regard to the Wal-Mart distribution center, "if nothing happened, people should have already started (their jobs) and paying taxes."

"We can't control that," he said.

Lor also said the city needs to build economic development.

Gallardo said he felt the city wasn't doing enough to increase jobs in the community. He also agreed with Dossetti in helping existing businesses.

Cervantes said industries wouldn't move to town until the city can show them they can do business with the individuals who already work here.

All the candidates said they had attended City Council meetings and, if they couldn't attend, had watched them on television.

Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or abutt@mercedsunstar.com.

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