First draft of Merced city budget released

Unexpected litigation facing the city of Merced has some staff and representatives expecting to make tough decisions as budget season arrives, and many are asking for money for area youths.

The city manager presented the Merced City Council with the first draft of the $194 million 2014-15 budget, an increase of about 1.5 percent from last year, during its Monday meeting. The budget has $40.7 million in discretionary money from the general fund and Measure C dollars.

“We found that there were some challenges,” said City Manager John Bramble.

Although property tax revenues increased by 10.7 percent and sales tax by 3.5 percent, the amount of grant funding the city gets to pay for a few police officers will decrease.

The city will begin to prepare for the litigation costs that come with contract negotiations. Five bargaining units that represent employees will be discussing renewal this fiscal year.

In addition, the city will be facing the costs for redistricting council elections. The council decided last month to move forward with dumping its at-large system after a Latino civil rights group threatened to sue.

There are also signs of improvements, Bramble said, as he pointed to UC Merced’s push to grow to 10,000 students, the city’s decision to reduce developer fees, activity in residential development and the promise of new manufacturing jobs looming in town.

The budget calls for no layoffs, but it does reassign positions from the Development Services and Housing departments to the Information Technology department and for stormwater maintenance.

Councilman Noah Lor said he would like to see positions added to the Economic Development department to help spur growth. “This kind of puts us in a somewhat difficult situation to be able to compete with other cities and counties in the Central Valley,” he said.

Mayor Stan Thurston said revenues are not as high as were predicted for the coming fiscal year. “It’s going to be another challenging budgetary session,” he said.

The session included an introductory version of the budget, so it did not reveal specific numbers for departments, such as those that serve young people in Merced. “When we get to the numbers, it will get more clear,” Thurston said.

Late last month, the Invest in Our Youth coalition asked the council for money to expand or begin three programs for young people. The coalition is made up of Merced-area nonprofits.

The proposed $232,200 would cover a six-week program through the Merced County Office of Education. The money would pay for bus passes, uniforms and other program costs, as well as the wages of up to 100 students who would go to work for local businesses.

The proposal also called for an additional $180,600 to be put into the McCombs Youth Center, which the Boys & Girls Clubs of Merced County occupies. The cash would pay for the cost to stay open two hours later during the week and open on weekends.

The third request was for money for two employees each at McNamara and Stephen Leonard parks. The cost would depend on the number of hours open and whether the city contracted out the staffing.

Advocates say services that keep youths busy and give them job skills will pay off by decreasing crime and improving opportunities for them.

Kelly Turner, president of the group Symple Equazion and a member of the coalition, said she is optimistic the proposals will be accepted by the City Council and called the amounts reasonable. “I do think that they could afford to fund those programs,” she said.

The budget will be discussed further at 6 p.m. Monday and May 21. If necessary, more meetings could be held at 5:30 p.m. June 2 and 9. The final adoption is planned for 7 p.m. June 16. All the meetings will be at City Hall, 678 W. 18th St.

City staff said a digital copy of the budget will be placed on the city’s website, www.cityofmerced.org.