Merced County District 1 and 2 supervisor candidates squared off in a League of Women Voters forum on Thursday night.
The discretionary funds that each of the five supervisors receives every year were a point of contention during the question-and-answer session, which also covered crime rates and economic development in the county.
The incumbents found themselves defending their use of the total $200,000 fund, while the opponents challenged the logic of the practice, even calling it a “slush fund.”
The questions in the forum came days after Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke and District Attorney Larry Morse publicly called the county’s gang violence a “public safety crisis” and implored the Board of Supervisors to find a way to beef up law enforcement.
District 1 Supervisor John Pedrozo said he has been criticized for his support of the discretionary fund, but he stands by the practice.
“When we start another budget, I’m almost completely out of discretionary dollars because I’ve used them for what I think it’s worth,” he said. “It’s to make the community that I represent better.”
He said those dollars are especially important in unincorporated areas such as Planada, El Nido and Le Grand.
$40,000Amount of discretionary dollars per supervisor per year
Pedrozo, who is in his third term, said he would look for other ways to add to the Sheriff’s Office and District Attorney’s Office rather than redirect the discretionary dollars into public safety funding.
“There is allocation, like I said, (54) percent of the budget goes to public safety,” he said.
Livingston Mayor Rodrigo Espinoza, who is running for the District 1 seat, said he would do away with the discretionary fund.
“I call it a slush fund, because that’s what it is,” he said. “I think the supervisors’ salary is already high. So if there’s a need in the public in my district, I’d be happy to help out with my salary.”
Merced County supervisors make more than $99,000 in base annual salary.
Espinoza, who is making his first run at a county seat, said the discretionary funds could be used to bring on more deputies.
“If that can afford us two or three sheriff’s (deputies), I’m for that,” he said. “It’s more important. Obviously, the nonprofits do need it, but there’s always ways of raising funds.”
The use of discretionary funds began in the late 1990s with $100,000 per supervisor. It later was decreased to $70,000 because of budget constraints, according to archives. It’s now $40,000 per supervisor, and unspent money rolls over into the next year.
District 2 Supervisor Hub Walsh, who is in his second term, also stood by his support for the discretionary dollars, noting the times he has helped out the Merced County Library or paid for sidewalk improvements in city parks, to name a few.
“I’m supportive of the utilization,” he said. “When I was first elected, the dollars were a lot larger and we have reduced it. And, I’m not opposed to having that discussion if we want to contract them.”
$200,000Total amount of discretionary dollars per year
Walsh noted that the board has approved 27 additional positions for the DA’s and Sheriff’s offices in the past three years.
“There are other challenges that we’re undergoing in regards to our public safety that we need to work collaboratively (on), because I didn’t hear that additional resources to the DA and sheriff was the solution,” he said. “There were other solutions they were looking for, and so I look forward to having that dialogue.”
Challenger Casey Steed said the county is not in good enough financial standing to allow discretionary dollars and that the money should go back into the general fund.
“I feel it’s a form of political patronage,” he said. “It’s a system that’s no longer needed here in Merced County. I appreciate where some of our unincorporated communities need a little help getting by, but we shouldn’t be in the business of picking winners or losers.”
Steed, who is in his third try for the county seat, went on to note that the money isn’t tracked or audited by the county after it is awarded.
The county’s No. 1 concern is public safety, he said. “We’re going to commit general fund dollars to public safety; the discretionary fund’s got to go,” he said. “It’s obvious where it needs to go. That needs to be the first money that walks over.”
$99,090Base annual salary of a supervisor
Steed said increased law enforcement funding should also benefit the local corrections system.
Lee Lor, who is also seeking the District 2 seat, said she is open to eliminating the discretionary fund spending. “Should the supervisors vote to keep it, what I would like to do is open it up to the community,” she said. “Make it an open process so that they could apply for funds. It’s up to the supervisors to make sure they’re fair.”
She went on to say nonprofits could benefit from the grants and be asked to educate residents on health, county initiatives and other community benefit efforts.
Lor said the county needs to be careful that money added to law enforcement funding is sustainable and not a short-term fix. She said poverty, family problems and other issues contribute to crime in Merced County.
“We need to look at other factors and not just put a Band-Aid on the problem,” she said.
By the numbers
Total discretionary expenditures and balances for 2014-15 fiscal year for each supervisor:
- District 1, John Pedrozo: $34,892.35 spent, $6,559.10 rolled over
- District 2, Hub Walsh: $51,056.95 spent, $197,921.61 rolled over
- District 3, formerly Linn Davis and currently Daron McDaniel: $99,500.63 spent, $45,929.67 rolled over
- District 4, Deidre Kelsey: $38,689.62 spent, $20,312.88 rolled over
- District 5, Jerry O’Banion: $47,445.40 spent, $127,326.95 rolled over