Merced City Council budget disappoints youth advocates

tmiller@mercedsunstar.comJune 17, 2014 

Local advocates for young people say they’re disappointed with receiving a fraction of the funding they had hoped for from Merced‘s City Council, but say they remain resolved to keep pushing next fiscal year.

Advocates drew up a plan in April asking for more than $400,000 to bolster the Parks and Recreation Department, which has seen years of cuts. On Monday the council opted to redirect $24,000. From which department wasn’t specified. That same amount of money would cover repairs to the recreational building at McNamara Park and utilities fees for a year. But the city wants a nonprofit and volunteers to run the building. If no nonprofit steps up, the building would remain closed.

Crissy Gallardo, a community organizer with Merced Organizing Project, said many of the people who attended meetings and pushed for more cash were disappointed by the outcome. “For them to feel like their voice wasn’t heard, our youth voice wasn’t heard, our community wasn’t heard, was a big disappointment,” she said. “But it also motivated us to continue to do the work we’re doing.”

More discouraging, she said, was the feeling that City Council members were not seriously considering the proposals of Invest in Our Youth, a campaign made up of several nonprofits that serve young people. Members of the campaign drew up the $400,000 proposal for youth services.

Advocates tried for months to get city leaders to find cash to create more recreation and job skills programs for young people around Merced. After the housing bubble burst and the recession hit Merced, the city was faced with several years of budget shortfalls. City staff saw layoffs, and services for the Parks and Recreation Department were slashed.

The overall budget for parks and recreation programs this year is about 40 percent of its size in 2005-06, the last year before the recession took hold. Since then, the department has had to manage with a considerably smaller staff and fewer program offerings.

Michelle Xiong, youth coordinator for Building Healthy Communities, was also disappointed by the outcome of Monday’s meeting. But Xiong said she sees a silver lining in more underrepresented groups of people getting involved in city government. “We are encouraged that a traditionally quiet population came out and spoke,” she said.

The Invest in Our Youth campaign got a $9,900 assist from the California Endowment, which paid for radio and print advertising related to the youth funding effort. “What we’re supporting is an advocacy campaign that young people are worth supporting,” said Brian Mimura, a program director for the California Endowment. “We do believe that the city can be doing more.”

During the council meeting Monday, Councilman Michael Belluomini proposed a plan that would cut about $170,000 from other departments to benefit youth programs. The motion did not receive support from council, aside from a ‘yes’ vote from Councilman Noah Lor.

Belluomini pointed to about six months of town hall meetings, budget study sessions and council priority-setting meetings, where speaker after speaker addressed the council and asked for more money for youth programs. “Why did we take all that input if we didn’t intend to let it affect the priorities of the council?” he asked on Monday.

Micaela Stanley, a 17-year-old resident who attended Monday’s meeting, said she wanted to see the council come through with more money but that she is undeterred. “We’ll be back next year,” she said. “We didn’t fail; this is just the beginning.”

Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or tmiller@mercedsunstar.com.

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