Mayor Murphy's State of the City Address and Video
I feel like the luckiest guy in a room of 1,200 people. That may be because I am. Being Mayor for the past three years has been the honor of a lifetime. Very few people in this world get the opportunity to be the mayor of their hometown, a city that I love so much.
We have a wonderful team at the City of Merced and we have been hard at work over the last year.
I still remember sending out invitations to the first State of the City in 2017 and hoping that people would show up to hear what is happening in our city. I was a brand new mayor and full of passion and resolve to roll up my sleeves and get to work. My passion hasn’t faded and my resolve hasn’t weakened. In years past, I’ve told you what I felt in my heart, that Merced is a City on the Rise. It was then and it is now. The state of our city, the city of mercy, is strong.
Thank you to everyone that is part of today’s program, both on stage and off. I am so glad that Sara Hill from the Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce accepted my invitation to be today’s emcee and that Annissa Fragoso accepted my invitation to represent the Merced County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. We have a lot of wonderful female leadership in Merced. What do you think? Jenny Castleton and Mikel Soria, your performance was great. Walker and Abigale, you make me proud. Thank you!
For the time that we have here together, I will be sharing updates about our city. I will share what we have accomplished and what to expect in the coming year, but also the challenges that we face and how we will meet them. Some of you are here to hear updates about the construction projects in our downtown, others are here to learn more about how we are combating homelessness. Others in the balcony are here because their high school government teacher told them to be here. Whatever your motivation might be, you will be missing the larger point about today’s gathering if all you hope to get is a download from the mayor on upcoming projects.
Today isn’t just about getting a download, that is part of it, an important part, but the more meaningful part of today is how you are going to act on what you learn. How are you going to find a way to be more involved in Merced? How are you going to use your god given strengths and talents to strengthen the fabric of our community? How is Merced going to be stronger for the next generation because of your presence?
The person who founded Merced was Charles Henry Huffman, an immigrant from Germany. Like so many others, he came to California during the Gold Rush and stayed. He worked for the Central Pacific Railroad, buying land for tracks and new towns. He was the one that decided Merced would make a nice town along the rail line. He also decided to stay and make his life here. His vision lives on in many ways, from Laura Fountain in Applegate Park, to our water system.
His great granddaughter is in the audience today. Please welcome Joanne Wigley.
Let me share with you the most powerful piece of information that I know as mayor. It is very simple. I am only as good as the people around me. As mayor, I get to be the front man and the face of the city, but we have a real strong team that brings us results. Let me introduce some of them to you.
First, I’d like to introduce you to my 6 colleagues on the city council. Matt Serratto is the Mayor Pro-Tem and represents District 5. In numeric order by district, the other council members are Anthony Martinez from District 1, Fernando Echevarria from District 2, Jill McLeod from District 3, Kevin Blake from District 4, and Delray Shelton from District 6. Let’s give them all a round of applause.
We also have a very talented team of city staff. Steve Carrigan is our city manager, Venus Rodriguez is our City Finance Officer, and Phaedra Norton is our City Attorney. These individuals are our three charter officers that are hired by the city council and we have a rock star group of department heads, supervisors and line staff that make the city what it is. We simply couldn’t function without their work. Let’s give them a round of applause.
I often to go elementary schools around the city to meet with students and read to classes. I often share with them the range of services that we provide. We are a full service city from A to Z. We have an airport and a zoo. We are responsible for roads, parks, clean drinking water, as well as garbage pickup, waste water treatment, building inspections, police and fire protection, and so many other important services. When I share with school children the list of services I often ask how many people they think are employed by the city to make all of these things happen every day. It’s common to have groups settle on a number around 5,000 employees. Sometimes even higher. Adults often make the same estimate. In the City of Merced we put on the functions of a city every day with 1/10th of that, just 520 employees. They deserve our praise.
There is another group of people that are extremely important to me and afford me the opportunity to be the mayor, that’s my family. Heather and I celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary a few weeks ago and she deserves an award for that. Walker is graduating from high school this year (a year early) and Maxwell and Abigale are high school freshmen. Nash is our youngest and is in 2nd grade.
I recently attended Nash’s class for a guest reader day. In addition to sharing a little bit about the city and the services we provide when I talk to students, I also usually pass out my business cards to the kids because they seem to enjoy it. When I went to Nash’s class recently I passed out my business cards to his class. During dinner that evening, I asked Nash how he liked having me in his class and whether the kids liked the business cards. He shrugged it off and said that the business cards were okay, but Evelyn’s grandpa is a farmer and brought chocolate milk and her dad is a police officer so he brought the SWAT vehicle to school. These kids and Heather keep me grounded and I love them.
Let’s turn to what is underway in Merced and what lies ahead.
There are a lot of people using their talents today to make Merced a better place. Drive through downtown, and you will see it all around you. You can find an event happening on most weekends, thanks to our talented residents, whether it is a production at Playhouse Merced, poetry at J&R Tacos, live jazz music at 510 Bistro, a parade, or our Saturday farmer’s market.
We are a community that wants to grow and nurture our talented people. Our community got stronger when UC Merced added their Downtown Center, and the downtown is becoming even more of an education center, thanks to the Merced County Office of Education. They are going to be bringing our educators downtown for trainings in the Mondo Building that they recently purchased across from Bob Hart Square, bringing a new wave of talent, along with new shoppers and diners to our core.
Another big moment for the downtown came when another group of folks brought their talents and strengths to share with our residents. Bitwise Industries announced they are coming to town and bringing with them their blend of instruction, tech assistance, and incubator space.
The renovation of the El Capitan Hotel, the Mainzer Theatre, and The Tioga are transformational projects for our city. It felt so good to have The Tioga signed restored to its rightful place in December.
Let’s have a look at some of the major projects underway in the downtown in this next video.
Let’s turn to transportation. Whether it’s across the country, or across town, roads are important to a community’s success. Just last week, the dedication was held for the completion of Segment II of Campus Parkway, and the groundbreaking of Segment III. This is a major four lane expressway that will connect Highway 99 to North Merced and the UC Merced campus. It will become an important commercial link and it is part of the eventual loop route around the City. The section from Highway 140 to the freeway is done and ready for use. If you are traveling to or from Yosemite, you can’t miss the new overpass. Thank you to our state legislators and Merced County for moving this project forward.
The City has been busy with its own roads. Downtown, we had a project at Main and M Street where we combined adding a storm drain to a street project. It caused some traffic delays, but it was work that needed to get done.
There have been road projects all around town on M Street, N Street, Yosemite Avenue, and elsewhere. We’ve also done major sidewalk projects on Buena Vista and around John Muir School, plus other miscellaneous ones.
But the problem that affects most people is potholes, because they show up all over town. Last year, our Public Works crews filled 38,140 potholes. They were especially busy in December, filling 4,584 potholes. If you aren’t already aware, we are filling potholes that residents report on the Merced Connect app within 2 business days. Not many US cities can say that.
We are looking toward the future as we conduct our business for the City. Part of that equation is providing room to grow for the future of Merced.
We are working on the North Merced Annexation Feasibility Study, a real long name for whether or not to add more land to the City limits, and if so, how much. The study looks at over 7,600 acres of land in the Bellevue Road area, generally around UC Merced. Meetings are being held to determine what the residents living there want, what the property owners want, and what is in the best interests of the City. In August, UC Merced will achieve its major milestone of educating 10,000 students at a time with the completion of its 2020 Project. That’s impressive.
The land being discussed for annexation would become future homes, schools, restaurants, and retail stores, but that is many, many years down the road.
It is not just UC Merced that is doing great work to educate our residents. Merced College is educating and training up a much needed generation of skilled labor. Nurses, welders, teachers, and so many other noble professions, including students that go on to 4-year institutions after graduating from Merced College. Their doors are open to all. You may have seen signs around town asking for your support of Measure J. If passed, this would enable Merced College to modernize its aged facilities and expand services to more of our college aged kids.
The city council just approved a new development near Merced College on the vacant land at the corner of Yosemite Ave and G Street. It will have medical office buildings, a hotel, apartments, retail stores and restaurants on 21 acres.
It’s not just plans for the future that we are making, there are a number of things underway today in Merced.
Retail expansion is important because it brings us clothes, coffee, and food, but we have also had a good year in commercial and industrial expansion. People often say to me, “Mayor, I see a lot of cool stuff coming to Merced, the downtown is coming alive and houses are under construction, but what about more skilled labor jobs?” Let me tell you, that is happening too. In 2013, we had lots of vacant industrial space in Merced, over 1.5-million square feet. Today, we only have 300,000 square feet available for lease. This is remarkable. In December 2010, our unemployment rate was around 19% then dropped to 13% and in December 2019, it was 7.9% and we are still working hard to bring it down.
O’Keeffe’s Safti-First, Titan Doors, and Centurion Boats have all made major expansions in Merced, in some cases doubling the size of their facilities. This means more income and more jobs for Merced. These companies are putting millions and millions of dollars into their offices, warehouses, and production plants. Why? It’s really simply. They are investing in Merced because they believe in Merced.
Down at the Mission Avenue Interchange, where Campus Parkway starts, there are two groups of investors who also believe in Merced. The Merced Gateway Center started putting in the infrastructure for the 77-acre travel oasis, lifestyle and town center they are building. It will also have an entertainment and multi-family component.
Across the way, the Campus Parkway Plaza has plans for a 5 story Hilton branded hotel and conference center, 2 sit down restaurants, 2 fast food pads, and a gas station.
The Merced Mall also is planning for the future with a total revamping of the shopping center. When it’s done, there will be new entertainment and shopping experiences for us.
Already, there are plans to bring a Burlington Coat Factory to the former Sears store, along with a Five Below. We also received a building permit application for Ulta Beauty to be part of the Sears renovation. Both of those are expected to open this spring. There will also be some changes in the Lowes shopping center. Ashley Furniture will take over the space currently leased by Best Buy and there is a strong likelihood that Best Buy will be relocated to a new location that we hope will be announced soon.
We’ve got a Rally’s/Checkers Burgers coming to Childs and Parsons. One particular business that has almost a cult following is Dutch Brothers Coffee, and they are coming to Childs Avenue. They should be opening very soon.
With an eye to the future, and making Merced a better place, the bottom line is we need more houses. And condos. And apartments. Our vacancy rate is down to 1%. We need housing in all sizes and all price ranges. This year we issued permits for nearly 700 houses. In addition, there are permits for over 550 apartment units that are in the works. These apartments can house college students and ease some of the overcrowding issues in the Bellevue Ranch neighborhood. New housing, market rate housing, is also under construction in South Merced, south of Childs Avenue.
Last year, you may remember that I made homelessness the focal point of my State of the City address. I don’t shy away from our challenges, and we are certainly not immune from this statewide struggle. I went into many of the things that we are doing to reduce homelessness. I am happy to report that I’ve seen more cooperation from our partners in county government and state government on this topic in the last year than I have ever seen in the past. For that, I am both very appreciative and hopeful.
Last year, I introduced the need for a Homeless Court. Through the leadership of superior court judges Proietti and Lo and the support of Merced County, we are only weeks away from opening this specialized court.
Homeless Court focuses on helping homeless residents with minor offenses that prevent them from re-entering mainstream society and gaining employment. It allows them an opportunity to clean up their record with community service and get a fresh start. This is something that we should all be behind.
I could spend our entire morning talking about the work we are doing to reduce homelessness. The City is building housing and the County is providing safety net services and will soon have a low barrier shelter to get more people off the street. Within city government, our police officers and firefighters often end up having the most contact with people facing the challenges of homelessness. They often end up being more than just law enforcement, they often have the role of social worker, connecting people with the services they need. Our DART team within the police department encounters these situations on a daily basis. They bring new meaning to the term community oriented policing.
Officer Mark Jenkins met with one man and it had a life-changing experience for both of them. By the way, this next video helps explain why Officer Jenkins was selected as the City’s 2019 Employee of the Year.
Officer Jenkins and Jay are here today. Jay, thank you for serving our country, and Officer Jenkins, thank you for all that you do for our City.
I started off with a brief mention about Charles Huffman, who had such an important role in Merced’s history. He came to Merced buying land rights for the Central Pacific Railroad and stayed here. Railroads still play a major role in Merced life, and not just when they stop traffic.
We are designing our downtown to accommodate the arrival of High Speed Rail and also the ACE train, the Altamont Commuter Express. HSR is a few years away, but the ACE train’s arrival is sooner. Part of the reason we have the development going on downtown is because people believe the future of Merced includes those projects.
As far as the trains that are going through town now, the City just had a quiet zone study conducted on the BNSF rail line, the one that runs near the post office and Applegate Zoo. It spelled out some potential solutions to the increased number of horns that blast through the day and night. We are developing the solutions and exploring ways to pay for it. If we can make safety improvements to the street crossings it will not only reduce the number of vehicle and pedestrian accidents, but also reduce the number of train horns.
Quiet Zones are one of the quality of life issues that affect City residents. If you think about it, most of our jobs as mayor, council members and City employees, is to maintain, or improve, the quality of life in Merced.
Quality of life is proudly being a Tree City USA, and working hard to keep that designation for more than 30 years.
Quality of life can be something simple, like creation of our Bulky Item Drop Off Site. This little spot at the corner of Yosemite Avenue and Highway 59 gives people a place to drop off things for free like mattresses, furniture, and appliances that might otherwise end up in our alleys and creeks. So far, since it opened in October the site has accepted hundreds of carloads and truckloads of materials.
Residents are doing a good job of helping pave the way to sustainability. Last year, you put 20% more green waste out for crews to pick up and to be composted as compared to 5 years ago. And it’s not because we’ve been using more water on our lawns. In fact, our water consumption as a city is down 25%. Our households and businesses are also recycling 50% more today than we did 5 years ago. Good job, Merced.
A lot of people don’t know the City has a wildlife refuge. If you weren’t aware of it, the city’s wildlife refuge is in the very southwest corner of the city past the airport. Last year we put nearly 500 million gallons of recycled water on the refuge to help the fish and game out there. It’s one more way that we are trying to make the future better for the next generation.
We are also making investments in our youth. For example, 7,609 kids were involved in the different programs offered through our Parks and Recreation Department. That’s a wide range of activities from swim lessons to folklorico dancing to Movies in the Park.
The City of Merced will be opening a new youth recreation facility at our old fire station at 27th and K Street near John Muir Elementary. We recently put a new roof on the building, gave it a fresh coat of paint, and made it ADA accessible. This space will be made available for free to local nonprofits working with youth. If you are interested in learning more there will be an open house to tour the space later this afternoon from 2 pm to 4 pm and there is more information available at cityofmerced.org.
The City Council also believes that it is important for neighbors to get to know each other. We are thinking a little outside the box by purchasing a trailer with everything that you need to throw a block party. This trailer will have popcorn and snow cone machines, games, tables and folding chairs, all available to check out. If you want to get to know your neighbors better we want to encourage that. The “Block Party To-Go” trailer won’t cost you anything to rent. I am of the belief that when neighbors know each other neighborhoods are safer, cleaner, and the overall quality of life increases.
Quality of life is also the arts, and Merced is rich with them. We have the many offerings of the Multicultural Arts Center, the productions at Playhouse Merced, and a number of musical venues throughout town. Some of you may have heard about the new work going on at the Merced Open Air Theatre in Applegate Park later this year. Kim Garner from UC Merced worked hard to get grants for a 10 concert series that will be held at the MOAT, and Monika Modest and her husband, Michael, donated $25,000 to renovate the MOAT in time for the concert series. Let’s hear from them now.
Switching gears, I want to share with you three important ballot measures that our residents will be voting on in the upcoming March 3rd election that will make some real improvements to the city.
First, most cities have mayors that serve 4 year terms, rather than 2 year terms like we have in Merced. Measure K would change this by making the terms 4 years, but still keeping the 2 term maximum. In case you are wondering, this won’t extend my term. My service will still end in 2020.
Second, most cities have a small stipend for council members to make public service an opportunity for all Merced residents. Measure L addresses this issue and would establish a Citizen Stipend Setting Commission who would set a maximum stipend that would limit compensation for elected officials.
The third ballot initiative, Measure M, establishes more direct reporting from the city financial officer to the mayor and city council.
Let me shift our focus for a moment and share with you something that I am very excited about. I want to introduce you to someone who believes in Merced the way that we do. He isn’t a member of our community yet, but soon will be as his business expands here. Many of you have been yearning for a brewery to open in Merced. Is that true? Please let me introduce you to Mike Cruz from Tioga-Sequoia Brewery.
Thank you Mike Cruz for your warm words about Merced and for making the decision to come here. This will be a major addition to our downtown dining and entertainment lineup. Welcome to our city.
I want to remind everyone that in two weeks we have our three annual Town Hall meetings in South, Central and North Merced. The dates and locations are on the screen. This is an opportunity to tell the Council what we are doing right, what we can do better, and what you would like us to be doing.
I would also like to invite everyone to the post-State of the City event that the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Cardinal Financial are holding right out in front of the theatre. Please stop by and grab a bite to eat and enjoy meeting new friends that share your interest in advancing Merced.
In conclusion, I believe in Merced. I believe that those that went before us laid a solid foundation. They built two railroads and a third that went to Yosemite, they built a highway on 16th Street and then a freeway. They built Lake Yosemite and our irrigation canal system. They built the beautiful county courthouse and this majestic theatre.
More importantly, I believe in us. I believe in the people in this room. I believe in the people that showed up on a Friday morning to come to the state of the city or that tuned in online. I believe in what we can accomplish together. I believe that a future generation will look back on this one with gratitude for what we will accomplish together.
I am pleased with our progress as a city. We’ve struggled with societal challenges that we will always face and that every city will, but in recent years we’ve also struggled with our self-image as a city. But as you can see, there are a lot of people who believe in Merced. These are people who live in Merced, and also people who look at Merced from the outside, and want to become part of what is happening here. We have come a long way. I hear excitement for a new Merced. A revitalized and refreshed Merced. A Merced where we all have a place and a role and a bright future. We get to write our own script.
At the beginning of my term I stood on this stage and shared with you two things that you could do to help our city. They are just as true today as they were then and have been largely responsible for our success.
First, if you are passionate about something, act on it. If there is something that caught your attention today or something that you have been dreaming about. Act on it. Consider this your official invitation from the mayor to move forward. Don’t wait. Telling the mayor your great idea about what the city or other people should do is great, but if that is all that you do then you are falling short. Be the change that you want to see in your neighborhood, your school, or your group of friends. This is how your friends and family will remember you. This is how your community will remember you. It will be your gift to others and your legacy. Public service is hard, but it is extremely rewarding. Don’t let your moment pass.
Second, let’s continue to elevate the way that we speak about our city. Words matter. Words can both hurt and heal. They can distance you from others or embrace them. Words can build up our city or hold us back. We shouldn’t be naïve or overlook our challenges in any way. I certainly don’t, and I don’t encourage others to either. But let’s be realistic about the great community that we have and lean into it. It is easy to be critical and tear others down. It is much more difficult to build something up.
In closing, dare to be bold. Dare to dream. Be the change that you want to see in the world. Be the change that Merced needs. Merced is a City on the Rise and I hope that you will join me in this important journey.