Merced public safety tax misses November ballot

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Merced police and detectives investigate the scene of an alleged assault with a deadly weapon on January 6, 2022.

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Measure C’s tumultuous journey to the November ballot came to an abrupt halt Monday night as the half-cent public safety sales tax failed to gain the necessary support from Merced executives.

An emotionally charged discussion precipitated the vote split 4-3, reflecting the divided opinion of the community. Of more than 20 residents who spoke at Monday’s special meeting, an equal number expressed support for and opposition to the public safety tax.

Although a majority of city council members supported placing the measure on the November ballot, this time without an expiration date, the four “yes” votes were not enough to move forward.

Mayor Matt Serratto as well as City Council members Delray Shelton, Sarah Boyle and Kevin Blake each voted in favor of renewal. Council members Bertha Perez, Fernando Echevarria and Jesse Ornelas voted in opposition.

“I support Measure C. However, I am not going to support it in this election,” Echevarria said in a comment that summed up the sentiments of many critics.

But other city officials and residents said urgently that the renewal measure must go ahead until the general election. “The schedule is tight. It has to be now,” Serratto said.

Since Merced voters passed the tax in 2006, Measure C has supported the city’s police and fire departments and paid for public works projects like road and street improvements ever since. The measure was approved with a 20-year sunset scheduled for 2026.

It is estimated that without the half-cent tax, Merced would face an annual budget shortfall of $7 million. The expiration of Measure C would also leave the approximately 30 police and fire jobs supported by the tax without a stable source of funding.

Ahead of Monday’s vote, Serratto asked Echevarria and Perez what it would take for them to support the renewal measure. “If we don’t get it right now, we’ll put ourselves in a whole world of pain,” Serratto said.

But council members told the mayor they were strongly opposed to the tax at the time.

Although Measure C is no longer tied to the ballot this election, the city will have the opportunity to try again in the next election before the measure expires in 2026.

Critics condemn rushed process and lack of commitment

Whether a Measure C renewal should be included in the November general election ballot has been widely divided among Merced officials and residents at recent city council meetings.

The saga began in June when the city council voted 6-1 to put him on the ballot. City leaders faced minimal pushback from the decision at the time.

That changed, however, at the next city council meeting in July, when a dozen critics disagreed. Opponents expressed frustration with what they saw as a minimal effort by the city to engage with residents about what the tax would look like if renewed.

Opponents like Patricia Ramos-Anderson, president of the Los Banos chapter of LULAC (League of Latin American Citizens), renewed that criticism Monday night. She said she could not support a renewal of Measure C until the city discussed with residents how their tax dollars should be used.

“You rush,” Ramos-Anderson said. “I do not support (Measure C) at the moment. . . wait two years, involve the community. It is vital.

Residents criticized community polls on support for Measure C as being rushed, poorly announced to Merced residents, and biased in favor of public safety funding, even though participants wanted taxpayer dollars used in different ways. ways, such as to further support local needs like housing, youth, parks and other service delivery.

Merced resident Gloria Sandoval reiterated those concerns on Monday, saying that while she supports Measure C overall, she cannot support it in its current form.

Sandoval noted that while the tax is called a “measure to protect vital city services,” the vast majority of funds raised go to the police department rather than parks, fire departments to other city departments.

“It’s a bit misleading, a bit misleading, to include the description of the measure as it is,” Sandoval said.

Others criticized the city council’s decision to put the measure on the ballot without an expiration date. If passed as such, the tax would remain in place until it is placed on a future ballot and voters choose to repeal it.

The concerns of community members resonated with some members of city council. Echevarria, who previously supported a renewal of Measure C, later said he received a flood of emails and messages from voters who had changed their minds.

Echevarria also criticized the Measure C poll for polling an inadequate percentage of voters in his District 2 and other areas south of Merced compared to areas north of the city. He called the poll biased and said it excluded many Hispanic and Latino residents from the survey.

Echevarria maintained that position on Monday. “I ask that we wait a bit and that the poll be more engaging for our residents,” he said. “It’s not an emergency. We still have time. . . but this process is not acceptable.

Another point of contention erupted over Measure C when it was discovered that an impending deadline with the county elections office to put it on the ballot was inaccurate. The city had operated on the assumption that staff only had until early July to execute the necessary documentation.

This inaccurate timeline guided city staff when Measure C renewal items were put on city council’s agenda and partially contributed to the accelerated pace of the process, Merced’s city manager previously told the Sun-Star. It was discovered on the day of the city council meeting that the deadline was actually only August 12 – more than a month away.

The revelation sparked frustration among council members and residents who realized they had more time to decide how, or whether, to put a Measure C renewal on the ballot. Perez, Echevarria and Ornelas each said the breaking news misled them.

Perez and Echevarria later said the inaccurate deadline partly contributed to their decision to change their votes from support to opposition.

This change resulted in a majority vote by city council to suspend the renewal of Measure C. The absence of council members Kevin Blake and Sarah Boyle, who had each previously supported the establishment of a renewal measure, also contributed to blocking renewal.

Supporters fear the city’s future without Measure C

The overthrow of the city council appeared to put the fate of the tax in limbo until earlier this month, when supporters of renewal appeared to make a comeback.

Following a show of community support for Measure C, Council voted 6 to 1 at the first meeting in August to hold a special meeting on Monday to reconsider including the tax in the next election.

Monday’s meeting again drew a slew of supporters for the Measure C renewal. Advocates voiced concerns about how the city’s police and fire departments could adequately respond to a growing population and an increasing number of calls without the charge.

Annissa Fragoso, president of the Merced County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, told the city council that she and her family would feel less safe without Measure C.

“Our population will continue to grow, and so will our crime,” Fragoso said. “I don’t want our current security compromised, not now, ever.”

Merced resident and county treasurer and tax collector Karen Adams also addressed the Council on Monday.

Adams said she was proud to see Merced become a “boom town” over the past two decades, recovering from the closure of the former Castle Air Force Base and the 2007-09 recession, but feared for the recovery of the city without Measure C.

“Our resilience has created momentum for prosperity, and we need to maintain that momentum as a thriving city by putting Measure Con on the ballot,” Adams said.

Other speakers said whatever one person’s opinion on renewing Measure C should be on the ballot for Merced voters to make the final decision.

“I think it’s very important to the safety and security of the public,” Edwin Kainth, president of the Merced Hotel and Lodging Association, said of Measure C. “At least it should go to the ballot of November So let the public and the citizens of Merced decide.

Before the city council’s vote, the mayor made a final plea to his colleagues to support the tax.

Serratto listed several of the council’s successes supporting parks, housing and other grassroots initiatives in recent years, saying those efforts were all of this was possible because the city was in good financial health. “A lot of it is because of the C measure. If we don’t have that, then all of that, to a large extent, goes away,” he said.

“I understand your frustration. I understand the attitude, a lot of people don’t like law enforcement,” Serratto said. “But it just seems like if we do this, if we vote no on this, what do we do?”

Despite the show of support from residents and the majority of the city council, this was not enough to move Measure C forward until the next election.

Ornelas, the only council member who has consistently voted against renewing Measure C due to opposition to its current form and lack of community engagement, said blocking renewal efforts presented an opportunity rather than a a failure.

Ornelas said the city can now work to make the half-cent tax fairer in the 2024 election by distributing it more evenly among city departments.

“There’s an inability to be creative, a lack of desire to envision a different Merced. We just continue to do the status quo,” Ornelas said. “I’m passionate about how we’re going to invest in our communities and what it will look like.”

This story was originally published August 9, 2022 4:36 p.m.

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Abbie Lauten-Scrivner is a reporter for the Merced Sun-Star. It covers the town of Atwater and the county of Merced. Abbie holds a Bachelor of Science in Journalism and Public Relations from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.