Legislative priorities adopted for Merced County

03/04/2014 8:40 PM

03/05/2014 7:13 AM

The Merced County Board of Supervisors adopted the county’s annual legislative agenda, which includes getting more funding for prison realignment programs, preserving agricultural lands and redeveloping the former Castle Air Force Base.

Merced County adopts a legislative agenda each year that outlines the county’s priorities and goals, said county spokesman Mike North. This year’s 27-page agenda was adopted by the board at its Feb. 25 meeting.

The agenda also allows the county to endorse state and federal legislation, projects and polices that align with its specific goals.

Many of last year’s projects and priorities made the agenda again this year, North said, but a larger emphasis was placed on managing groundwater because of the drought.

“It’s something that we took a harder look at this year, and I think it will be a major part of our legislative priorities moving forward,” North said. “With the drought, I think we’re seeing surface water and groundwater are tied together.”

Amid talk of the possibility of state-mandated water regulations, North said the county’s position is that groundwater is best managed locally.

“We just want to keep control of the groundwater at the local level because we feel it’s best managed that way,” North said. “We’ve spent a lot of time and money on studies about how groundwater functions here, the needs of local farmers and how we can manage that resource.”

Under the umbrella of public safety, the county’s goal is to secure funding to “more efficiently house and rehabilitate local inmates.”

In August 2013, the county was denied $40 million in state funding to build a new jail. The funding, which came from Senate Bill 1022, would have been used to build a 432-bed complex at the John Latorraca Correctional Facility on Sandy Mush Road and close the 45-year-old Main Jail in Merced.

Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed an additional round of $500 million in funding this year, according to the agenda, and the county is considering applying for the money.

The county also supports modifying the state’s prison realignment law to cap the number of years an offender can be sentenced to jail and make longer-term offenders eligible for state prison.

“Our jail facilities weren’t meant to house long-term inmates,” North said. “We’re trying to best manage our jail population and housing long-term inmates isn’t something our facilities are designed for.”

Under current law, many locally-sentenced offenders are receiving longer sentences at the county jail, which affects Merced County public safety agencies, correctional facilities and staff caseloads.

When it comes to the former Castle Air Force Base, the county supports laws that could help improve Castle’s infrastructure, such as updating water lines and making buildings comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Brown last year signed a bill to simplify land sales at Castle. The bill got rid of the “cumbersome” public auction process that county officials said drove away potential buyers.

Acknowledging that Merced County is the fifth largest agricultural county in the state, the county endorses legislation that preserves agricultural lands and restores funding for the Williamson Act. That legislation enables local governments to enter into contracts with private landowners to restrict parcels of land to agricultural or open space use in return for lower property tax assessments

The county supports developing a plan to meet California’s future water needs, including more water storage, the agenda shows. The county will push for increased funding for flood protection and levee enhancement efforts.

As far as the county’s transportation needs, the county will continue working with Merced County Association of Governments to move forward on projects such as the Los Banos Bypass and the Atwater-Merced Expressway.

To see a full copy of the Merced County 2014 Legislative Agenda, go to the county’s website at https://www.co.merced.ca.us/‎.

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