(Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative.)
A half-cent sales tax that funds public safety and street repairs in the City of Merced moved a step closer to renewal in August when a coalition led by former mayor Mike Murphy submitted the petitions needed to put the decision to voters next year.
The Committee for a Safer Merced presented nearly 5,000 signatures on Aug. 21 to the city clerk for tabulation and then verification by the Merced County Registrar of Voters. If verified, the petitions will put Measure C to a citywide vote on the March 2024 ballot.
First approved in 2006 with a 20-year life span, Measure C so far has generated $105 million, City officials said. It’s expected to generate $8.8 million this fiscal year.
Plans to gather signatures in support of renewing the tax took shape after the Merced City Council voted last year to block the tax renewal from being put on the November 2022 ballot.
Organizers kicked off their drive in April and said they met their goal of gathering the required signatures—representing 10% of the city’s nearly 40,000 registered voters—about two months before the deadline. The effort is poised to be the first signature-gathering petition drive to put a City ballot measure before Merced voters, officials confirmed.
“This is a big group of people that we’re representing,” Murphy told the Merced City Council during a recent meeting. “The stacks of petitions all represent people in households in our city and their desire for public safety.”
Measure C supporter Alison Kostecky asked Council members for their support, saying the petitions indicate “it’s what the people want.”
“Close to 5,000 registered voters in this city want this,” Kostecky said. “So we would really, really, really love everyone on this Council’s endorsement and support moving forward and getting this measure passed and approved again.”
Without the half-cent tax, City officials estimate Merced could face a $7 million annual budget shortfall and lose stable funding for the police and fire departments.
“We needed to act to ensure that we do not lose 30 police officers and fire firefighters in the next two years,” Raquel Rios, a member of the Merced Police Officers Association, said in a news release. “These signatures send a strong message that Merced wants to keep public safety as a priority.”
The Merced Police Department already faces staffing challenges, starting with the top position. Current Interim Chief Greg Gundlach is the department’s fourth leader in five years. As the City continues its months-long search for a new permanent chief, the City Council recently agreed to increase the position’s salary.
Staffing constraints in January led the then acting police chief to disband the department’s Disruptive Area Response Team (DART), which supplemented patrol officers to address quality-of-life issues such as illegal gambling, blight, human trafficking, providing services for the unhoused and connecting with members of the community. Though restarted, DART still isn’t fully staffed.
The version of Measure C that could go before voters next year includes changes from the original tax and the failed 2022 proposal. Notably, it would become a special tax rather than a general tax, meaning revenue could only be used for the tax’s stated purpose.
If approved next year, Measure C would again have a 20-year life span and would be reviewed by a citizens’ oversight committee.
Staff in Merced’s City Clerk’s Office spent a day tabulating the raw number of signatures before sending them to the Merced County Registrar of Voters to verify. It was unclear when verification by the registrar’s office would be complete.
The measure has support from a majority of the current Council, including Mayor Matt Serratto. Council Members Sarah Boyle, Ronnie De Anda and Shane Smith all attended the kickoff rally for the petition drive.
Jesse Ornelas, the only Council member to vote twice against putting the measure on the ballot, said he would have liked to see the measure address the need for affordable housing as a public safety issue. In the end, however, he said he’s leaving the measure’s fate up to Merced voters.
“To be honest, I’m really neither here nor there about it,” Ornelas said. “It’s something that, if they get the signatures for it, and people vote on it and it passes, I’m kind of in favor of democracy.”