Merced mayoral candidates discuss ways to boost jobs, trim budget

10/11/2011 1:27 AM

10/11/2011 1:51 AM

Four candidates running for Merced mayor in the Nov. 8 municipal election dropped by the Sun-Star editorial board Monday to discuss bringing jobs to the community, the city budget and more.

The Sun-Star contacted Ken Riggleman Jr. about the meeting; he didn't show up Monday. The four who spoke with the Sun-Star are Stan Thurston, Mayor Bill Spriggs, and council members Bill Blake and Michele Gabriault-Acosta. The Sun-Star will profile each of these people and the city council candidates beginning next week.

Thurston, who's had eight years of experience on the City Council, said he was known for finding common sense solutions. Blake said he wants to empower the council to recruit jobs. Acosta, born and raised in Merced, said she wants to boost collaboration with residents and give people a contact who can help them and answer questions. Spriggs, the incumbent mayor, said he understands what it took to run a small business.

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

Bringing jobs to the community

Acosta said the city needs to do a better job. As mayor, she said she would propose going out once a week with staff members, visiting businesses large and small to make sure everything is all right. "See if there is something the city can help them with," the 59-year-old said.

Thurston said there are 27 empty storefronts from G to V Street -- and a lot of other empty storefronts across the city. "We need to make a big dramatic push to bring as many businesses in," he said, adding that some of the larger companies, which want to relocate, are given preferential attention from the city. "Many times the smaller businesses are pushed aside and the permitting process takes months," Thurston said.

If elected mayor, he says he wants to waive all public facility impact fees on businesses for at least a year. Those fees "pay for publicly or municipally owned facilities like police stations, bike paths," he said. "We need jobs more than putting money in that pot right now," Thurston, 66, said.

Blake, 61, said the city is in desperate times which call for "desperate things." He said the public facilities impact fees are outlandish, and that the last time fees were checked was during the Gold Rush. "We need to go back and recognize the fees we judged then and re-evaluate them now based on our existing environment," Blake said, adding that he didn't think it was a bad idea to waive fees for a year and "see if it pays dividends." He said he did realize infrastructure may suffer, but "we do have to get jobs here now."

Meanwhile, Spriggs said the city has done a "remarkable job" in bringing in jobs considering the shape of the economy. For example, he said a company making chocolate-covered pretzels will be coming into the former Budweiser facility soon. And he said Hobby Lobby, which opened Monday, lauded the city on its permitting process. "All is not doom and gloom," Spriggs, 60, said.

Public facility impact fees

Spriggs said the the public facility impact fees are competitive with every other city in the Valley.

Moreover, he said the city's general plan is predicated on the assumption that it collects sufficient fees to pay for the infrastructure so the city can grow in the future. "Absent collecting fees, (we would have to) backfill fees from the general fund or require (a) development to do an individual environmental impact report, which would take a year and add cost," he said.

Thurston said he didn't care if the city was competitive with anybody. "We have to be more than just competitive. We need jobs and all this stuff about general plan and negotiations, we can just sit there and do that, but we are going to be in the same place next year as we are this year," he said. Bold action, he said, was needed to get more jobs in the city.

However, Acosta said the city wasn't competitive enough with fees. "I don't agree with taking a moratorium of everything for a year because some of those fees pay for staff at City Hall. If you cut those, you end up cutting more jobs at City Hall," Acosta said. She said fees should be reduced in the commercial section for the city to get more employers. "I still think we need to cut them," she said.

Blake said if fees were brought down, infrastructure may suffer. "I think we get the jobs here, the income here, put people to work here and then we can deal with infrastructure," Blake said. He said something had to be done to create jobs, and "if it's necessary to cut back on fees completely for a year to give it a test drive, let's do it."

City budget

No more cuts to police and fire, said Thurston. He said they were already at a recommended minimum set by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Loss of one more firefighter would cause a partial grayout of a station every day," he said.

Thurston said a lot of cities are looking at their pension systems and making changes from a defined benefit plans to contribution plans. "Taxpayers can't afford a defined pension plan," he said. He said Merced is paying for social security and a defined pension plan. "Very few cities do that," he said. "We should look at that and how much it's costing the city."

Another area to look at is outsourcing, he said. There are a lot of qualified and experienced professionals working for the city, he said. "Goal No. 1 is to keep them," Thurston said. He said all costs have to be put on the table and discussed. And he said he would challenge each council member to come up with their vision of cost savings for the city. "Up till now, they've relied on what staff has said and haven't heard from elected officials on what they think," Thurston said.

Acosta said the areas that can't be reduced are police and fire. She said when the community is asked what is important, they say police and fire. "With this continued deficit going on, the only way we are going to get any revenues coming in is to get jobs in," she said. "We've been looking at everything ... like Mr. Blake said, it might come down to other jobs being cut. I'd hate to see that."

Blake said he didn't want to cut jobs that belonged to city employees now, but "it may have to come to the table later on. Our revenue sources are not living up to what we had anticipated or hoped." He said further cuts to the work force may be "a reality."

"Will it be fire, will it be police? I hope not. (We should) do our best to maintain them at the current level, but there is going to have to be some give," Blake said.

It's not a pleasant time, Spriggs said. "We're going to have to look at every general-funded department in the city and make some real hard judgments on what businesses we stay in and what businesses we aren't able to fund anymore," Spriggs said.

He said the city could negotiate with bargaining units to pay a greater percentage for health care and retirement. And at the same time, "we might look at salary packages that aren't quite what they are now."

Spriggs said the city would have to cut expenses significantly. It will "probably end up having a smaller work force, and that smaller work force can be formed potentially throughout the organization," Spriggs said.

Council decisions

Blake, who's had long experience in law enforcement, said he was satisfied with the research and homework he had done for City Council meetings. He said he disagreed with some of the actions taken by the council, but didn't have any regrets. "Do your homework. I do it all the time and I do my very best to make a good decision for citizens."

Acosta said she didn't have any regrets either. Like Blake, she said she went into meetings after doing research and homework. "I don't go in with my mind made up; always listen to what the community has to say before voting," Acosta said.

Spriggs regretted laying off the four employees who drove the lawnmowers in the parks. "They were blue-collar guys who had done everything right," he said. But because of the circumstances the city was in, they had to be let go. "Hardest thing to do is lay off folks," Spriggs said. "More painful than regretful, those decisions hurt."

Thurston said he thought an effort to increase the sales tax by a half-cent and spending money on a consulting firm was a waste of money.

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

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