With Modesto preparing sharp cuts to public safety, some residents are starting to vent about public money spent to spruce up parks and trails.
A few Modestans question a $4.67 million project to revamp Mancini Park, most often used by residents of Ceres and a county unincorporated area. The park on River Road sits across the Tuolumne River from the nearest Modesto neighborhood.
Sal Rodriguez was baffled when he read a Modesto flier describing the park improvements this week. His car was stolen twice last year and four times he has walked outside his home to find his car burglarized.
"I think it's a waste of money," said Rodriguez, who lives two blocks from the park. "We have law enforcement being cut. Our public safety is the most important. That is where our tax dollars should be going."
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Residents say that county deputies, Ceres police and even Modesto police respond to 911 calls from the neighborhood, and they're distressed about the shrinking budgets of all three departments.
"There is so much gang activity and shooting at night, I've had pellets hitting my home," Rodriguez said.
Still, Modesto's Parks and Recreation Department is pushing forward with the Mancini project, which features a new playground and picnic area, basketball court, baseball field and soccer fields.
City officials said the park project has support from the neighborhood and that community members were involved in designing the plans.
Julie Hannon, parks and recreation director, said money for improving Mancini Park does not come from the general fund, used to pay for police and fire services.
The park is part of the Tuolumne River Regional Park System, a joint venture of Modesto, Stanislaus County and Ceres. Modesto, which maintains the park, is applying for a grant to fund the improvements through the Statewide Park Development and Community Revitalization Program.
A state decision on grant awards is expected in the fall.
"If the funding is available through the state, we like to take advantage of it locally," Hannon said. "It will improve our parks and also put some people to work working on our parks."
Another project that might have to fight perceptions is the next phase of the Virginia Corridor bike and walking path in Modesto.
In September, work is supposed to start on extending the popular trail from Granger Avenue to Bowen Avenue, with a pedestrian bridge over Briggsmore Avenue. The cost: $3 million.
Hannon gave the same justification for the Virginia Corridor work. It's mainly funded by outside grants for specific projects.
Other capital projects will move more slowly, she said, as the parks and recreation budget shrinks from $11.5 million this year to $10.6 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Councilman Joe Muratore said public safety is the top priority, but the park projects make for a better quality of life in Modesto.
"At first I questioned the purpose of Mancini Park but realized it was a narrow grant, and that park is well-used by residents in that area," he said. "We need to make full use of the resources that are available. If we don't use the grant money, it is going to be used somewhere else in California."
Neighborhood opinion is mixed about Mancini Park. The park is a memorial to Frank Mancini, a beloved music man who helped found the Modesto Symphony. His former house sits on the property.
Supporters say the improvements will encourage more families to frequent the park and push out drug users, homeless people and gangs. Others argue that improvements will bring more people and problems to the neighborhood.
"They don't have the resources to police the place at night," said Gabriel Thompson, a retired New Jersey policeman who rents the Mancini home from the city. "I think they are making a mistake."
Some of those concerns were raised at a public workshop Wednesday, but many residents seemed to warm to the plan, organizers said.
"We are trying set the tone to remove the stigma that has been attached to the park for a number of years," said David Duran of the citizens advisory council for Tuolumne River Regional Park. "Getting people there will address a lot of those problems. Those problems will move away."
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2321.