Merced residents can shape budget priority talk

Two budget priority sessions are planned this month by the Merced City Council, which is looking for input from residents on where to focus its resources in the coming fiscal year.

The first meeting is 5:30 p.m. Monday at City Hall, 678 W. 18th St. Another is planned later in the month, and the council can decide if more meetings are necessary.

In the past year, the council has occasionally talked about the best way to attract business and industry to Merced. High on its list of priorities has been the development of industrial parks, such as those near the Merced Municipal Airport and Campus Parkway.

But public safety has also been a hot topic the past few years. Merced had 15 homicides last year, a significant increase from five in 2013 and nine the year before that. Since the beginning of the new year, the city has seen three homicides.

The Merced Police Department currently has 84 sworn officers, with a few openings still to fill. Even after hiring for those spots, the department would have fewer officers than the 2007 peak of 111.

The city also operates the Merced Fire Department using brownouts, a policy that attempts to solve low staffing and budget issues by leaving one three-person fire engine company unstaffed for as much as a full shift. Changes in the city budget last year cut back on how often the department must use it, but the practice continues.

Last year’s sessions got public comment from dozens of residents, who were looking for more money for youth recreation and job-skills programs. The council ultimately freed up about $24,000 for youth services, which went toward the reopening of the McNamara Park Youth Center.

Some advocates said the council should have found more money for young people in the budget.

The second priority session is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Feb. 23 at City Hall.