Michelle Gray, whose police officer husband was killed by a gang member during a traffic stop, called on Merced leaders Monday to spend $480,000 in Measure C revenue to maintain public safety services.
"I don't think our community can afford to lose another officer the way we lost Stephan (Gray)," she said, as dozens of police officers and firefighters watched.
The City Council had two options: they could either spend the money on retaining three firefighters and two police officers, or put it toward repairing Merced's ailing infrastructure.
Their decision was resounding.
With no one speaking out against the plan, support of police and fire services was overwhelming.
The council unanimously supported sending the money to public safety departments, which was part of the 2009-2010 budget, a spending plan that continues to get leaner.
The Measure C oversight committee twice split on making a recommendation to the City Council. Gray watched one meeting in disbelief.
"I couldn't help but wonder how paving a road could take precedence over saving a life," she told the council.
The half-cent sales tax, largely touted as a way to hire more officers and firefighters, was approved by voters shortly after Gray's death.
Councilman Joe Cortez, a retired Merced police officer, said he may be biased in supporting public safety over roads.
"I know where the potholes are so I avoid those streets," he said. "I think it's something everyone can deal with."
To bridge a $10.2 million shortfall, Merced leaders have approved cutting 14 positions, including five within the police department. Those jobs will be eliminated in October, unless Merced's application for federal economic stimulus money to hire or keep officers is approved. Another 24 City Hall employees, including Police Chief Russ Thomas, took golden handshakes or buyouts.
Thomas will leave July 17 and will likely be succeeded by someone within the department. That person's job will be eliminated to save money.
The budget also froze merit pay increases for all departments. Last month, the council also voted to restructure employee health insurance plans to save about $250,000 each year.
Nonetheless, the city had to rely on $2 million in rainy-day money so the cuts wouldn't be deeper.
Even as Merced passed its budget, City Manager John Bramble warned of potential cash raids by Sacramento. There's talk among legislators of borrowing $2 billion in property taxes, which would be a $1.2 million hit for the city.
Since the state's planning to repay it, the city would treat it like a loan and not cut more from the budget.
State leaders are also looking at raiding the gas tax, which pays for road repair, he said. For Merced, it would mean losing $1.3 million.
"This could be devastating," Bramble said.
The specter of more cash hits come as the city saw sales tax decline for the seventh quarter in a row. It's still reeling from high foreclosure and unemployment rates. Property tax revenue will continue to fall.
Bramble pledged to return within 30 days with a contingency plan as legislators try to balance California's $24 billion deficit.
Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.