April 9, 2014

Youth advocates seek funding from Merced

The Merced City Council is beginning to hear again from youth advocates, as they did the last few years, who are pushing for more money for programs that target young people. The next priority setting session for the city budget is just over a week away, and the city could soon see an increase in discretionary funds.

The Merced City Council is preparing to set priorities for the coming fiscal year, and calls for more money for youth programs are on the rise again.

Adding hope the calls might yield results is a potential increase in discretionary funding for the next fiscal year. Whether that dream is a reality won’t be known until people can set their eyes on a draft of the budget early next month.

Advocates have already been voicing their opinions during public meetings and town halls, pressing city leaders to scrounge up more cash for activities and job-skills programs for the city’s young people. Advocates say providing those services will help prevent youngsters from joining gangs and to improve their job opportunities.

Crissy Gallardo, a community organizer with Merced Organizing Project, this week addressed the council at its regular meeting. “We want our City Council to make youth a priority by investing in our future,” she said.

It could be a big task to pay for services for young people because the city has about 21,000 residents ages 5 to 19, according to U.S. Census numbers from 2010.

The 2013-14 budget earmarked $700,042, or about 2 percent of the general fund, for parks and recreation programs. A forecast made in January for the coming budget year estimated adding about 5 percent to the earmark, which would make the contribution about $735,000.

The council has seen some “very preliminary” numbers for the city’s budget and remains “cautiously optimistic” about being able to add dollars to youth programs, Councilman Kevin Blake said. “There’s only so much of the pie to go around,” he said.

Blake said youth services play an important role in developing productive members of society, and steering young people away from gangs, drugs and other destructive behavior. He said it’s a difficult balancing act to find the money while maintaining public safety and other services.

The parks and recreation budget is relatively small compared with past budgets when the economy was better. After the housing bubble burst and the recession hit Merced, the city was faced with several years of budget shortfalls. City staff saw layoffs, and services for the Parks and Recreation Department were slashed.

The overall budget for parks and recreation programs this year is about 40 percent of its size in 2005-06, the last year before the recession took hold. Since then the department has a considerably smaller staff payroll because of layoffs.

In February, Councilman Michael Belluomini requested an extensive analysis of what changes the city would have to make in staff, facilities, funding and policy to increase the number of opportunities for youngsters to get services. Council members unanimously approved the request for that analysis but those findings aren’t due until June, when the final budget discussions are planned.

Belluomini said teasing out extra dollars for youth services remains high on his priority list, second only to developing the industrial park along Campus Parkway. He said he remains optimistic that improvements in sales tax revenue could mean more money for youth.

Youth advocates have been meeting regularly to try to work out many of the kinks on their own, so they can come to budget meetings with a clear plan. Andres Reyes, the coordinator for nonprofit We’Ced Youth Media, said the advocates aren’t ready to report what amount of money they think would be realistic and acceptable.

“I’m very confident that the proposals will be strong, that it’ll make sense,” Reyes said. “Whether the council will adopt them or not, it’s going to fall on them.”

However, when the proposal is ready it should be able to answer any questions from City Council about what the money should be used for, he said. As talks ramped up last year around this time, Reyes said, youth advocates were aware that getting more money for youngsters would be a multiyear process.

The final goal-setting meeting before the first draft of the budget begins at 8:30 a.m. April 19.

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