Improving public safety and positioning Merced for growth were two of the main themes addressed Tuesday during a forum featuring three mayoral candidates and two would-be City Council representatives.
The event, organized by the Merced County Association of Realtors, featured mayoral contenders Necola Adams, Mike Murphy and Josh Pedrozo as well as two candidates for the city’s new District 5, Daniel Sabzehzar and Matthew Serratto. Mayoral candidate Noah Lor did not take part in the forum.
Asked to discuss the biggest issue facing the community, several of the candidates mentioned the need to improve public safety and to create more jobs.
Murphy, an attorney who has been on the City Council since 2011, said the community must work together to bring industrial jobs to the area, particularly by making use of the facilities at the former Castle Air Force Base. The planned growth of UC Merced, which is scheduled to double in size in coming years, will be a keystone for economic growth and the next mayor will need to lead that relationship, he said, noting that he taught a course on politics at the university.
“I would say there isn’t anybody on City Council or in City Hall that has a better relationship with UC Merced from top to bottom than I do.” Murphy said.
Pedrozo, a high school teacher and councilman since 2009, said the city must work to improve the quality of life in Merced by, for example, taking steps to reduce the homeless population and deter panhandling that gives a bad impression of the city.
“When people see that, it’s discouraging and it makes Merced an unattractive place,” he said.
Pedrozo said Merced’s leaders should also work with the educational system to ensure the local workforce is prepared for industrial-type jobs the city could attract.
Necola Adams, a businesswoman and community leader, also pointed to the need to improve the quality of life, particularly by creating activities for teens and children to steer them away from joining gangs. The city also must work to build more housing for students to help keep rentals affordable and to provide quality jobs. Merced has a lot to offer to draw industry from Silicon Valley, she said.
“The thing we have that they don’t is land and space,” she said. “With the UC students that we have, they are a great resource and a great workforce for the tech companies.”
The November election will be the first in which candidates for the City Council are running to represent districts rather than the city at large. Sabzehzar, a UC Merced student and small-business owner, faces Serratto, a deputy district attorney, in the contest to represent an area of west-central Merced roughly bounded by Bear Creek, G Street, Yosemite Avenue and Highway 59.
The Realtors’ association plans to hold a forum for candidates of Districts 1 and 3 on Oct. 3.
Sabzehzar said economic redevelopment is key to addressing a slate of problems including crime, safety and public health.
“It was the economic collapse of Castle’s closure in 1995 that sent shock waves through the region’s economy,” he said. It led to a contraction of the local economy, which fueled not only poverty but led to increased crime, he said. Such problems also are tied to the poor state of the region’s health.
“We can do so much better for the people who live here,” he said.
Serratto said his experience as a prosecutor has given him deep knowledge of the need to improve public safety, not only by giving police the resources they need, but by working to improve troubled neighborhoods and to make sure they aren’t abandoned as the city pursues growth toward UC Merced.
“Neighborhoods can turn bad quickly,” he said. “We have to fight to preserve the quality of our neighborhoods.”
All of the candidates expressed support for City Manager Steve Carrigan’s drive to reduce the homeless population through a “housing first” effort – the idea that people who are given shelter as a first step are able to pull themselves toward more stable situations. Several of the candidates said the city has been unable to crack down on panhandling because police officers are busy with more serious crimes, but that the city must find a solution.
“People are afraid to go downtown,” Serratto said, adding that many Mercedians are more comfortable going to Turlock or elsewhere.
Adams said, “The problem is some of them don’t want to live in homes,” and that other cities “send” their homeless toward Merced. “We have to cut off the pipeline,” she said.
Murphy, who noted his office is near the downtown Rescue Mission, said the city should consider building housing for the homeless in the area of Childs Avenue and B Street, near services that could help them.
All of the candidates said Merced needs to take steps to make the city more attractive to new business.
Murphy and Adams said something as simple as obtaining permission to install signs for their businesses was an unnecessarily long and complex process.
Sabzehzar said he knew a fellow UC Merced student who created a data-driven web application shop, Tin Bin, but decided to sell it after finding the local business environment too hard to deal with.
Serratto said the city has a lot to offer given its agriculture base, UC Merced and proximity to the Bay Area, and that it could help draw businesses by reducing development fees and offering incentives such as tax breaks. Pedrozo said Merced College is a resource the city could use to make sure Mercedians have the right skills employers want.
On the need for more police officers, the candidates all expressed support for the department and efforts to increase staffing. Adams said she would like to see the department better engage with students to improve relationships between youths and officers. The candidates also agreed that they support the Police Department’s VIPER program to fight gang violence.
The candidates all said they would oppose establishing rent control in Merced, saying the answer to high housing costs is to build more housing.
All of the candidates expressed support for Measure V, which would impose a half-cent county sales tax to support regional transportation projects. Adams qualified her support, however, saying she’d support a 10-year tax rather than one for 30 years, to better control long-term debt.
Michelle Morgante: 209-385-2456