Opinion Columns & Blogs

Merced council should support critical funding for new police station

Police lights.
Police lights.

There is a great and immediate need to build a new police headquarters, and two fire stations, yet the City Council plans to delay for two years the needed funding measure for reasons that are unfounded.

The police station was enlarged in 1980 and is too small to be effective nearly 40 years later. It’s small with cramped spaces for detectives, managers, briefing rooms, lockers, interview rooms, the dispatch center and places to store records, weapons, and evidence. Many say the working conditions are deplorable. A good working environment is important to attracting and retaining police officers. Having fewer officers and fewer experienced officers reduces our safety. The council recognized this need when it bought a site for a new police station more than 10 years ago.

At the meeting on Sept. 30, the council expressed a consensus to delay a measure to ask the voters to approve a tax to fund a new police station. The delay would put the measure on the 2022 ballot, rather than the November 2020 ballot. The construction cost of a new $40 million station is increasing at approximately 4% per year, or more than $1.5 million annually. In June 2018 the council delayed placing a measure to fund the new police station on the November 2018 ballot because a voter attitude survey showed 61% support when 68% was needed. The survey showed diminished support because it asked if voters would support a tax of $68 when only a $39 tax was needed, and because the public was not educated about the deplorable conditions in the current police station. With the 2018 delay and the proposed 2020 delay by council, the cost of the new station will increase by $6 million due to inflation, a needless waste.

The reason the council is delaying the ballot measure to fund the station is that it wants to place another ballot measure on the 2020 ballot to extend the Measure C half-cent sales tax increase approved in 2005, which ends in 2026. Funds from Measure C pay the salaries of 21 police officers and 13 firemen. The council believes voters will not support both a tax for police/fire salaries, and a new police station/fire stations on the same ballot. So if the Measure C extension fails in 2020, then is the police station ballot measure delayed to 2024?

This reasoning does not seem to recognize that there is an immediate need for a new station, and two new fire stations to keep Merced safe, and to use taxpayer dollars effectively. There is no pressing need to extend Measure C six years before it ends. Council can place the extension of the Measure C sales tax on the 2022 and /or 2024 ballot without a fluctuation in the funding. The voters of Merced have historically been supportive of the police and fire services. There is no sound reason to fear that an extension of Measure C, if properly justified by the council, will be defeated both in 2022 and in 2024. If that did happen, it would indicate a profound problem between the voters and public safety services.

If this were not enough reason, then there is an immediate and pressing need to build two new fire stations. The ballot measure to fund the new police station is proposed to include funding for twofire stations.

Nearly all of the city is within one mile of a fire station and within a six minute response time for fire and emergency medical services, except for some new housing development areas. The city is issuing over 400 building permits for new houses every year. Those houses north of Cardella Road in Bellevue Ranch near UC Merced, and those houses east of Coffee Street, or south of Gerard Ave east of Highway 99 in the Weaver School District, are well beyond one mile from a fire station. To make these areas safe for emergency medical and fire services, a new fire station is needed in southeast Merced and in north Merced as soon as possible, not after 2022.

You can make a difference. Ask your City Council members to have faith in Merced voters’ support for police and fire services such that extending Measure C can be delayed to elections in 2022 or 2024. The more urgent matter is to deal with funding a new police headquarters and two fire stations to serve the existing and growing city immediately. Let the council give the voters of Merced an opportunity to show their support of improved police and fire protection facilities with a tax measure on the ballot in 2020 to fund a new police headquarters and two fire stations.

Michael Belluomini was on the Merced City Council from 2013 to 2018.