Merced City Council Meeting, 8-1-16

 Merced City Council Meeting, 8-1-16
Sustainable Groundwater Management Act study session
The meeting began with a report by a state Department of Water Resources staffer, reading lickety-split word-for-word from a power-point presentation about the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, recently passed by the state Legislature to try and halt the critical over drafting of groundwater throughout the major agricultural areas of California. The report dealt with several housekeeping issues concerning the establishment of local "groundwater sustainability agencies." These GSA's are the brainchild of water bureaucrats as they tippy-toe through the minefields of aquifer depletion, land subsidence, the growth of irrigated crops, and private property rights.
This is the DWR's latest attempt at water-management planning in the state, the latest blending of carrots and sticks with the added stick that if local stakeholders cannot bring themselves to create a sustainable groundwater condition, the state will step in and try to do it for them. In nearly 20 years of attending water meetings in eastern Merced County, members of the Badlands Journal editorial board have found that the largest stakeholders cannot run a legal meeting, much less establish an agency that can create a sustainable groundwater...condition? situation? what? What does sustainable mean in this context and how can this already moribund term provide useful guidance? Does "sustainable" mean that the water table only loses a foot a year? Two feet? A meter? Two meters? More? Less?
Given the amount of financial pressure agribusiness can exert on legislators, we are not optimistic that the state would do much better than a local GSA to create a sustainable water table beneath the ever-expanding orchards of the Nut People.
It was encouraging to note that it is now admitted that the eastern Merced basin, which includes one of the most critically subsiding areas in the state, El Nido, is critically overdrafted.1. For years, in MAGPI and other water venues in eastern Merced County, the basin was presented as relatively well off compared with basins to the north and south in the San Joaquin Valley. This may have been in part because few landowners were willing to let any public entity monitor their wells. However, five years of drought a several thousand more acres of seasonal pasture converted to nut orchards required new wells or deeper wells, which required money and, of course, the government has been right there to help farmers and ranchers drill deeper wells and regain a superior position in ecological destruction. Part of that grant/loan application process requires landowners to make some report about the depth of the water table.
City-County Revenue Sharing Agreement
City Finance staff explained to the council the passage of Prop. 13 in 1978 took away the ability of cities and counties to raise (or lower) property taxes according to their perceived needs or desires and that this inflexibility made property tax-revenue sharing agreements necessary when the city annexed unincorporated county land. The old agreement between the city and the county of Merced terminated in 2014; developers stalled projects near the UC Merced campus because they wanted city services; the old agreement was a 66-34-percent split in favor of the county; the one just negotiated is 47-53-percent in favor of the city.
Staff admitted it was an "out of the box agreement" but that they think it is solid.
The new city manager, Steve Carrigan, said it was "enormous" and "probably the biggest thing I work on."
Together with an "annexation agreement with UC Merced we can build apartments, housing and shopping centers."
Carrigan noted proudly that the meetings with the county were at times "very contentious." This is how "Kid Stockton" as we call the former economic development director of that town who was fired two weeks before its municipal bankruptcy caused by reckless and corrupt development, operates. He explained to the council that the agreement is similar to one in Kern County.
"There is a little bit of risk, but if fails we'll go back to a more traditional model," he said.
"It is out of the box but fair," Carrigan stressed. Although the negotiations were "very contentious," he assured the council and the public that he "truly believes that the county is our partner."
Now the city, the county and the UC campus will "link arms" to form the true "three-legged stool."
Mayor Stan Thurston's praise of Carrigan was effusive. "His style worked," he said, "and maybe it will work on other issues, too."
Thurston is termed out in November.
Councilman Mike Murphy, the favorite to be the new mayor, called Carrigan "our closer" and assured him that "we have a lot of fun projects coming up."
We can hardly wait.
In their comments none of the councilmen mention that "little bit of risk," leaving us to wonder what all the "contention" was about.
Regional Surface Transportation Program Exchange Funds: North vs. South Merced
City engineering staff reminded the council that it had voted to accept $876,000 of these state/fed road funds but had not decided between two projects. Staff continued to recommend adding lanes to a portion of Yosemite Ave. between San Augustine2 and SR 59 in north Merced. Eight or nine members of the public who spoke and two councilmen were committed to a project in South Merced:  repaving 16th Street between 8th Street and Childs Ave., which services two schools and a busy medical and dental clinic, and 15th Street between O and R streets, which services Costco, one of the largest retailers in Merced.
The staff was not forthcoming about its motives for recommending the Yosemite Ave. option, nor were they asked to be by any councilman. The situation is bizarre and the result -- it was clear the moment Planning Director Dave Goncalves denied it -- of a backroom deal with an unnamed developer. The result of this staff shenanigan is that the city owns a slice of county land parallel and contiguous to the two lanes of Yosemite Ave. between San Augustine and SR 59. This slice of county land would continue the four lanes of Yosemite to its dead end in the highway if the city had the money to widen it. The slice of county land is adjacent to another block of county land surrounded on three sides by city land.
It is a headache for staff. It doesn't look good on the map, people in North Merced complain about the bottleneck at the stop sign at San Augustine, and not one councilman lives in South Merced. Nor, we guess, do any city or county department heads. Therefore, it was at least politic for staff to recommend the northern project.
Challenged at the previous meeting on this subject by mayoral candidate Murphy, staff defended its decision-making process, which Murphy had criticized. Street and road projects are selected based on the criteria of various grant programs available to the city. Nonetheless, back when staff was at full strength in 2005, they did create a priority list for programs, which they still refer to when grants become available. Staff uses its judgment on a number of issues that better funding would create objective analysis about: pavement condition, economic consideration, traffic density, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and cost/benefit considerations.
The concern Murphy and staff have about objective criteria has arisen due to the arrival of the new district-based council. Candidates from three of the new districts will be elected in November. Two of the districts contain portions of South Merced; the third is the North Merced District containing the Yosemite Ave. project.
Staff stated that it had leveraged $500,000 in city funds into $7.1 million in grants due to the City of Merced's status as a disadvantaged community.
Staff's argument for Yosemite was legal (a liability issue), and political: the city owns the right of way, it has been rejected on three previous grants and this is the last chance for external funding, and completing the project will increase the opportunity for annexation of this piece, mainly the grounds for an old cement plant.
Regarding pavement management in Merced, staff claims that 77 percent is fair to good and 23 percent is poor to failed. Twenty-three percent of the streets are worse than the section of M Street proposed for repaving.
Mayor Thurston contested the claim that the widening of Yosemite Ave. would increase the chance for annexation, noting that the traffic problem from downtown Merced to Bellevue Road (the future belt road around town to UC Merced) on SR 59 that is the problem. The city should get a developer in time to pay for the Yosemite Ave. widening. Meanwhile, he added, there are more than 300 medical staff plus hundreds of patients at the Golden Valley Health Center plus two schools on M Street and a possible grocery store near the intersection of M Street and Childs Avenue.
Staff tried to make an issue out of the ADA ramps at the intersection but Councilman Tony Dossetti shot it down. Councilman Kevin Blake said the Yosemite/San Augustine intersection is a safety issue but deplored the lack of any objective analysis to prove his belief. Councilman Michael Belluomini asked why a developer hadn't already paid for this expansion on Yosemite Ave. Staff said the fees to the developer were waved in return for other, not clearly specified things not yet done.
Planning and Development Services Director David Goncalves explained rapidly in low tones about "reimbursement," whereby the city reimburses developers for public works improvements. But, because the slice of property under question is in the county, the city cannot make that reimbursement, however there might be funds for one lane.
Was this "planning" situation the result of mis-, mal- or nonfeasance? This interrogatory dead end is often met when dealing with development in the city and county of Merced and as housing starts begin to multiply, we will return to this.
Eight or nine people spoke at the public hearing. All of them supported the M and 15th streets project. As they spoke, listing reason after reason why the South Merced project was preferable by any political criterion of the Common Good -- as sone person put it, need vs. want -- staff was busy at the back of the room cooking up a deal, which it presented after close of the public hearing. The city would pave a tapered partial lane on Yosemite Ave., easing the abrupt lane reduction, repave M Street and forget 15th Street for the moment on the argument that the high speed railroad station would end its usefulness. Thurston objected to that argument.
All councilmen agreed it was a good idea, Murphy claiming he'd already thought of it, and it passed unanimously.
Parks and Community Services unexpended funds
In the last city council meeting, Councilman Murphy had interrogated Parks and Community Services staff on the dispensation of "unexpended funds," income derived from the department's activities. The query also involved the hiring of additional staff: a recreation manager, a ball-field manager, and a recreation coordinator.
Park and Community Services/Assistant City Manager Mike Conway reported to the council that interviews for the recreation manager and ball-field manager were scheduled for the coming week and the recreation coordinator position would depend on the recreation manager position. In July, the unexpended funds amounted to $9,176.
Murphy leapt. These "savings," he said, would amount to about $30,000 in three months and should be made available to non-profits who also provide recreational and community services "like the Boys and Girls Club," he said, repeating his assertion from the previous meeting. Apparently, for Murphy, for some political reason, there is only one such NGO worthy of these "savings," which the finance department staff had warned him should not be "expended."
Murphy reiterated that the Boys and Girls Club director had told him that $10,000 would allow him to keep the club open for a half-day on weekends. Murphy didn't explain whether the sum was for a week, a month, a quarter or more.
Thurston asked Murphy if he planned to propose a system for all organizations to submit requests for the unexpended funds. Another community-based organization "that really stretched it funds" was LifeLine in Loughborough.
Murphy inquired if "it was philosophically interesting?"
Only if the public and their leaders are again willing to swallow the sophistry of "win/win-public/private partnerships for growth," which is the rightwing ideological smokescreen in front of development that does not pay for itself. -- blj

Councilman Dossetti proposed that staff should mean with Boys and Girls Club Director Tony Slaton. Thurston interrupted to say that this first had to be put on the council agenda.
UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland's announcement to the city, which she repeated word-for-word the following day to the Merced County Board of Supervisors, will be discussed in a separate post.

(1) Sunshine on MAGPI, Badlands Journal, July 29, 2008.