June 16, 2014

Merced adopts balanced budget, amid calls for youth programs

The Merced City Council on Monday approved a budget that found more than $24,000 for young people – an amount far less than what youth activists were seeking.

The Merced City Council on Monday approved a budget that found more than $24,000 for young people, an amount far less than what youth activists were seeking.

The $194 million budget passed on a 5-2 vote during Monday’s council meeting. Councilmen Michael Belluomini and Noah Lor voted no, citing that they wanted find more money for youth programs.

Part of the $24,000 will pay for repairs to McNamara Park’s recreation building, assuming an outside group volunteers to run it. Back in April, the activists had asked for more than $300,000 to help young people.

The budget includes $34.5 million in the general fund to pay for police, fire, recreation and other discretionary services, as well as $6.2 million from Measure C sales taxes.

The budget is balanced and includes no layoffs.

About 63 percent of the budget is tied up in public works, 17 percent on public safety and 9 percent for support services. About 2 percent goes to parks and recreation, which encompasses many youth-related services.

Youth advocates, who have called for extra money for services dedicated to young people, organized a final push Monday afternoon with those who support their cause. About 60 youths and adults marched from Bob Hart Square to City Hall, chanting and holding signs.

Many of them stayed for a budget session meeting, giving a last show of support before the council decided whether to make any changes to the proposed budget. Several cited Merced’s high unemployment rate and high level of childhood poverty as reasons the city should back more youth programs.

A Public Policy Institute of California report on poverty said Merced County has the highest rate of childhood poverty in the state at 30 percent. Latinos and blacks have higher poverty rates in the state as opposed to whites and Asians, the report stated.

Finding the extra cash was a difficult task, according to city staff. Though the tax revenue is expected to rise by 5.9 percent, expenses will be higher, according to City Manager John Bramble.

The youth advocates have been asking for the extra money for many months. They pooled their resources to run the Invest in Our Youth campaign, which began in April. Several nonprofits that work with young people joined that effort.

“A budget should reflect the values of a community,” said Lisa Marroquin, who works for Building Healthy Communities, a group that’s part of the campaign.

Advocates say services that keep young people busy and give them job skills will pay off by decreasing crime and improving opportunities for them. Council members have said more activities are needed, but they don’t agree on how deep into the city’s pockets they should dig for the necessary money.

Any additional money reprogrammed for youth would have required trade-offs from other department budgets. City staff say years of cutbacks have left many departments with little room to find money, and other departments are running on deficits.

Councilman Belluomini, who voted against the budget that was passed Monday, had developed a plan that called for about $170,000 in trade-offs to benefit youth programs, but it didn’t gain support from the council.

Councilman Tony Dossetti said he would not change an already balanced budget, because he represents the city as a whole and not just the advocates at the meeting. “There’s just not that money there,” he said.

Councilman Mike Murphy said it was unrealistic to try to fund more programs without affecting city employees.

He said the city’s economy is improving and that he hopes to be able to fund more programs in the future. “We need to start digging our way out of this,” he said. “It’s time we start putting some money away.”


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