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Want a say in how county supervisors spend taxpayer money? Here’s your chance.

akuhn@mercedsun-star.com

Two freshman Merced County supervisors are experimenting with a new way to dole out the hotly-contested discretionary funds that each board member receives each fiscal year.

Supervisors Rodrigo Espinoza and Supervisor Lee Lor will host a study session Wednesday to introduce “participatory budgeting,” a process crafted to allow residents to directly vote on how to allocate discretionary funds.

“I’m just really hoping the community comes out and participates,” Lor said in an interview with the Sun-Star. “This is something that they asked for. I’m praying they come out and take advantage of it.”

Each supervisor receives $40,000 of public money each fiscal year to spend on community projects or programs or to help nonprofits. The outgoing board in December adopted new policies, which include putting the money back in the general fund if it’s not used. The board must approve spending of discretionary funding, but individual supervisors nominate projects to receive funding.

Previously, unused money rolled over to the next budget year, and some supervisors accrued hundreds of thousands of dollars in discretionary funding.

Before the December vote, McDaniel routinely abstained from voting on special board project agenda items and never fully spent his allocated $40,000. His policy was to use his district’s discretionary funds only on “brick and mortar” projects. McDaniel has not taken a stance on the participatory budgeting approach.

“I look at this cautiously because I don’t think it’s up to government to pick winners and losers,” he said. “The winners will be happy, and the losers will be unhappy. We can’t give money to everybody.”

Espinoza and Lor’s plan is to use the new process to allocate $160,000 from their districts during the next two years.

Steering committee membership is open to residents of Espinoza’s District 1 – which stretches from Le Grand through south Merced and up to Livingston – and Lor’s District 2, which primarily encompasses the city of Merced.

The process, though relatively new, is recognized and used by U.S. Housing & Urban Development as a best practice in civic engagement. Residents can brainstorm ideas for community projects, develop them into proposals and then vote on which projects will be funded.

“Implementing participatory budgeting in Districts 1 and 2 will be a powerful process for residents involvement and leadership development,” Lor said in a news release. “It will truly capture the spirit of civic engagement and will encourage residents and local stakeholders to collaborate and find ideas to improve our neighborhoods.”

During the supervisor campaign last year, Espinoza called the discretionary funds a “slush fund” and disagreed with the practice. At a board meeting last week, Espinoza said the participatory budgeting process allows a greater number of people to get involved and have a say on how public money is used.

“Merced will be the first in the Central Valley to adopt this,” Espinoza said in a statement. “This will help engage my community and create a new democratic process for residents to have a say and vote for what they want.”

Building Healthy Communities and the Participatory Budgeting Project are partnering with the supervisors, who are working to establish a steering committee to oversee the process. When a project is selected following the process, it will be put on the board of supervisors’ agenda for approval in spring next year.

The study session meeting will be from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in Room J2 at Merced County Office of Education, 632 W. 13th St. in Merced. For more information, call Sol Rivas at 209-383-4242 or sol@unitedwaymerced.org.

To apply, submit an application by 4:30 p.m. on June 16 online. Residents may also download the application and submit to Espinoza or Lor in person at 2222 M St. in Merced. Steering committee members will be announced June 30.

Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477

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