This month, the Merced City Council will consider its budget for the coming year, prioritizing public safety, economic development and youth recreation.
The city’s biggest general fund expenses are: police, fire, and parks and recreation.
Through the parks and rec budget, the city provides, or helps others provide, youth sports, after-school activities, senior citizen programs, the city zoo, pool and swim programs and the Youth Council. With more than 25 percent of the city’s population being under 19, Merced has one of the highest percentages of young people of any city in the state. Many live in poor, single-parent households in high-crime areas. They need positive recreation activities.
But in 2011, the funding for these priorities began to shift. In 2010-11, parks and rec had a budget of $1.9 million, including $1.1 million for staff. Five years later, the proposed budget is $1.7 million – 11 percent less than in 2010. The budget for full- and part-time staff is $840,000, a 24 percent cut from 2010.
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Proposed funding for fire is $12.25 million, for police it is $23.86 million. From 2010, the Fire Department budget has increased 9.8 percent; police spending is up 17.7 percent.
The Police and Fire departments provide very important services to Merced, but so do parks and recreation.
Compare Merced to similar cities.
Merced has 81,722 people, comparable to Turlock (71,043), Manteca (73,787), Tracy (85,296) and Folsom (74,909). Merced has five full-time recreation staff, two working at the zoo. Turlock also has five full-timers and Manteca six. But Tracy and Folsom each have 13 full-time recreation staff.
Meanwhile, Merced has 60 certified firefighters, compared to 46 in Turlock, 44 in Manteca, 64 in Tracy 64 and 69 in Folsom.
Merced has 91 sworn police officers, with a proposal for 94. Turlock has 73, Manteca 67, Tracy 86 and Folsom 76.
The total budget for recreation in Merced is $1.5 million, Turlock $2.2 million, Manteca $1.6 million, Tracy $3.7 million and Folsom $6.1 million. Merced spends $11.5 million on its Fire Department, while Turlock spends $8.2 million, Manteca $9.3 million, Tracy $15.1 million and Folsom $16.2 million.
Merced’s police budget is $22.6 million, compared to Turlock’ $18.5 million, $17.8 million in Manteca, Tracy’s $24.1 million and Folsom’s $18.3 million.
These comparisons show that Merced spends the least for parks and rec staffing and the most for police staffing. For its Fire Department, Merced is in the middle. Funding for parks and recreation appears to be out of balance with other priorities.
Each new police officer costs $120,000 for salary and benefits. In 2014-15 and 2015-16, three officer positions were unfilled because the city couldn’t find anyone qualified to take the jobs. Thus $360,000 was committed but unused, unavailable to improve the city.
Are there other ways to improve safety in Merced in addition to hiring more police officers?
Last year the city expanded the stationing of retired police officers at middle schools with funding from Merced City School District. The city expanded the “neighborhood watch” program to work with police. This year, the city committed $110,000 for planning to relocate the Police Department to the Merced Sun-Star’s building.
The city provides candidates for police officer jobs funding to attend police officer training school plus a daily living allowance while training. The City Council approved an ordinance with meaningful penalties for repeated false alarms requiring police response, expected to keep police officers from wasting time on 2,000 meaningless calls.
Many of the crimes against property and against people in Merced are caused by gangs. These gangs depend on young people for new recruits. Poverty, absent parents and idle time predispose kids to join gangs. Young people are more likely to join a gang when they don’t have a constructive athletic team or recreation group to fill that time and to help keep them safe.
Improving recreation opportunities and services for young people could help keep the city safer.
Reducing gang crime requires a two-pronged approach. First, the city needs a robust, well-staffed anti-gang police unit with equipment and technology to interrupt gang activity. Second, the city needs a robust, well-staffed recreation program with equipment and activities to interrupt gang recruitment of young people and to provide alternative activities. This won’t stop gang crime, but it will reduce it.
City parks and recreation has not had a full-time director trained and experienced in recreation programming since 2011. Reducing the staff helped the city deal with the recession. This year, the city is proposing adding 10 new staff positions – but just half of one position for the Recreation Department.
Is the well-being of our youths a priority? Does this budget reflect that priority? The City Council should correct the budget imbalance and provide more parks and recreation staff, a new director and funding to enlarge recreation programming and opportunities for Merced’s youths. The city should also hire three more police officers.
If you agree, let your council members know.
Michael Belluomini is a member of the Merced City Council