Could Merced, California, get a universal basic income program next?

Members of the Merced City Council have been aske by some residents to create a universal basic income program for the city.

By Madeline Shannon

Original article:

After a contentious public hearing over how to use money allotted by the federal American Rescue Plan Act, the Merced City Council on Monday reviewed a long list of proposals community members and youth advocates had pressed for in the last few weeks.

The first of two public hearings resulted in a discussion among members of the City Council about how the city’s $27 million in ARPA funds will be used. 

Some of the programs topping the list were the establishment of an affordable housing trust fund, the creation of jobs for high school students, a universal basic income program and premium pay for essential workers, especially farm workers.

However, some city officials didn’t support some of the biggest expenditures community advocates suggested in recent weeks — particularly the establishment of a basic universal income program.

Such a program would be similar to one established in Stockton, called the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration.

Launched by now-former Stockton mayor Michael Tubbs two years ago, the program paid $500 a month to city residents selected at random. The program was paid for by donations from private organizations.

District 2 Councilmember Fernando Echevarria was the strongest supporter of such a program Monday night. Councilmember Jesse Ornelas has also previously spoken in support of establishing such a program.

“Stockton is on point on this and their research is showing that it was successful,” Echevarria said.

Echevarria supported funneling funds from $2.5 million toward sending out checks to program participants between ages 16-21 or 18-21 every month, saying he’d like the youth who get universal income to use the money productively, like spending money on clothes, shoes and food. 

“That’s their money. If we give them money, they can spend it any damn way they please,” Echevarria said.

Echevarria even went as far as to make a motion establishing a universal basic income program for youth, although the motion failed because only Ornelas and Councilmember Bertha Perez voted in support of the program. 

Meanwhile, Mayor Matt Serratto and council members Kevin Blake, Sarah Boyle and Delray Shelton voted against it.

“I’m 100 percent for job training,” said Boyle, who represents District 5. “There’s a lot of other resources out here in Merced we need to make sure we’re advertising about. Universal basic income, I’m not really for.

Perez supported the idea, saying that every dollar the city invested in the youth would pay off in the long run. 

Councilmember Delray Shelton said he didn’t know about giving residents “random, miscellaneous checks.” Serratto said he didn’t think there was enough money to make the program last long-term.

“Giving people checks, no way,” Blake added during the meeting. “I don’t know if that’s beneficial.”

Other possible uses

Using that money to cover the backlog of unpaid water, sewer and garbage disposal bills to the city also came up on Monday night, something city officials previously discussed as the total amount of delinquent utility bills hovers around a half million dollars.

“The city should look at ARPA funds to make sure they cover that portion of water, sewer and garbage bills,” said Sheng Xiong, a policy advocate for the Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability. 

“This utility bill was not accepted when people applied for rental assistance with the programs here locally. It’s important we look at ARPA funds to make sure that is covered, especially since we know people were affected by this and couldn’t pay their bills.”

In a previous demonstration to push for that ARPA money to be invested in programs that helped youth in the city, youth organizers said they wanted $2.5 million to be used to fund the guaranteed universal income program for youth in Merced, and $500,000 to be used to create new jobs for high school students.

“We need youth investments. That money needs to go to the youth,” said Astrid Morales, a Merced youth activist who spoke at Monday’s City Council meeting.

“You have $27 million, $3 million towards youth investment, housing, redistricting, we need that.”

Others in previous weeks advocated for additional funding for affordable housing in the amount of $5 million, another big item pushed by many in the previous two public hearings over use of ARPA funds. 

This and other priorities voiced by members of the community lined up with those of City Council members, who individually support priorities as diverse as youth services, affordable housing, zoo improvements, public safety, Yosemite Parkway beautification, street improvements, tourism, and infrastructure, among other priorities.

Other areas of interest indicated on Monday night include construction of a youth center in south Merced to keep kids out of trouble, rental support, utility support, more services to the homeless, food bank support, eviction prevention and broadband internet expansion. 

City staff will come back to the City Council during their next public hearing on ARPA funds to break down how members could vote to spend the city’s ARPA dollars.

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