We were reminded of past malfeasance in the City of Merced against the Parks and Recreation Department while watching the June 15 meeting of the City Council. A number of speakers from South Merced denounced city staff and elected officials for plundering the department to backfill the police budget.
This is an old game in Merced. Whenever budget shortfalls arrive, parks and rec are sure to suffer.
In 2008, as the great building boom turned into the spectacular real estate bust, the paid the Bandoni family a million dollars for a piece of ground bordering Cardella Road around 2008. We have on excellent authority that the parks and rec budget was deeply cut for part of that payoff. The Bandonis had threatened to sell it to a developer. This didn’t sit well with city council and staff bigshots at the time, so they paid the bribe to keep the land as a “park.” Nothing has ever been done to develop a “park,” and the Bandonis may still be farming it.
Although this was by no means the beginning of the city’s depredations on its Parks and Recreation, it was typical of the kind of corruption in real estate dealings by government and speculators in North Merced brought about by the establishment of UC Merced.
“The bathrooms in the parks on the South Side look like prison toilets,” one speaker told the council at the June 15 meeting.
Ken Elwin, of the city Public Works Department explained that the parks on the north side of town are better because they are funded by special subdivision assessments while funds for the older parks come from the city’s general funds.
This is hogwash and if Elwin doesn’t know it, he shouldn’t be misinforming the public.
Consider Dwight Amey Park, near the Campus Parkway and the subdivision of the old Alfarata ranch. This park was established about the time the city paid Pietro Bandoni not to develop his land. The park is named for the distinguished reverend and community leader of South Merced. It’s on the wrong side of town, contains a few cement tables under shelter, no bathrooms and only the outlines of a baseball field.
Bob Carpenter Park on Parsons doesn’t have any bathrooms. It’s “nothing but a land deal,” as Capitol columnist Dan Walters said of “Mr. UC Merced’s” gift to large landowners and speculators in eastern Merced County.
Applegate Park’s bathrooms have been refurbished but are now locked due to vandalism.
And how many public drinking fountains in parks and along the bike paths in Merced worked even before the virus.
Elwin was full of hogwash that night. The city opened its arms to development, with the new UC campus as taxpayer-funded anchor tenant and largest development project in the state at the time. At the time of maximum growth, five of the seven council members were realtors. Developers paid for no amenities, and what went into capital development funds disappeared from public view. New public groups should file state Public Records Act requests about them and a complete catalog of the different funds the city uses to hides its revenues. It was a scandal 20 years ago and nothing has changed but staff and council.
Yosemite Lake, built by Merced Irrigation District and managed by Merced County charges admission to the public, but UC students, staff and faculty have their own free entrance to the park, lake and amenities built for county citizens. If the public is not careful, UC will take over the whole lake and facilities and bar public access. In that event, don’t count on any real resistance from local government.
When members of the public told council members at the June 15 meeting that using Measure Y funds, which come from marijuana sales, to backfill the police budget, they may not have realized that a majority of the council were in law enforcement – Kevin Blake and Delray Shelton (sheriff deputies), Matt Serratto (assistant district attorney), and the absent Council Member Fernando Etchevarria (retired college campus police officer).
Measure Y was written to divide 60 percent of its funds equally between police, fire, and parks/recreation. The city manager diverted the third designated for parks and recreation to the general fund to backfill revenue losses to the police department.
The public spoke forcefully against using park and rec funds for police, and accurately about the conditions of parks and recreational programs in South Merced. These are old complaints, older than the terms of the sitting council and many of the staff, including the city manager. But not older than the tenure of Assistant City Manager Mike Conway. For years, the city ripped off Parks and Recreation funds by making Conway its director when, in fact, all he has ever been is the de facto director of city information, public relations and lobbying. How much benefit was Conway to the city parks and recreation department in those lean, post-building boom years? If reinstated in these lean pandemic years, how much benefit will he be?
It is part of the overall tasteless oppression of South Merced that the police department’s southern station adjoins McNamara Park, the largest park in the area. According to one member of the public, who volunteers at the community center on the park grounds, squad cars regularly tear out of the shared parking lot, endangering the children, most of whom are black or brown.
Speaking of recreational programs in Merced, when exactly is the Boys and Girls Club open? Since it was built, there has never seemed to be enough money to run it properly. Is that because of incompetent employees or its location south of the Union Pacific tracks?
And whatever has happened to the Senior Center, once a popular site for meetings and conferences? Nothing seems to be going on there at all.
Former Councilmember Michael Belluomini, sitting conspicuously in the second row where he could be seen behind every speaker, told the council that when he had drafted the language for Measure Y he had made it clear that the money set aside for the parks and recreation department could never be usurped for other purposes.
He echoed another speaker’s skepticism that there were so few volunteers for the committee to oversee Measure Y that the city manager had had to put it under the jurisdiction of the Measure C committee (a fund arising from a sales-tax hike).
Another member of the public thought the diversion of those funds into the general fund for police purposes might be illegal, and suggested a lawyer might be interested in pursuing the matter.
Later, one council member asked for a show of hands of those interested in serving on the committee and the names of those raising their hands were possibly taken down by city staff.
Here is it necessary to state categorically that members of the public will retain and increase their influence in city affairs only to the extent that they avoid serving on its boards and commissions. The main purpose of these entities is for the city to exert influence on its critics in order to maintain the status quo. The best question to ask is who benefits from the status quo of a crippled parks and recreation department?
Following the testimonies of a couple dozen members of the public, the council members spoke. Fernando Etchevarria, who represents the core of South Merced, including McNamara Park, was absent.
The other council members, after some windy apologetics to the tune of how much they appreciated the criticism from the public and were in solidarity with them despite the fact that law enforcement needed all the support it could get, expressed themselves in complete favor of giving the money to the parks and recreation department. Mayor Mike received consensus from the council that the entire $276,000 would be given to the parks and recreation. He explained to the crowd, with help from staff, that the details would be worked out before the next city council meeting.
By concentrating on this latest raid on park and rec funds in the city, the groups from South Merced and elsewhere in town have unveiled a particularly shoddy aspect of Merced government’s impenetrable collection of funds. But, as the gentleman who thought the transfer out of Measure Y of park funds was probably illegal said, an attorney, possibly an army of attorneys will be required to pry open the financial secrets of the City of Merced.