Modesto City Council hopefuls weigh in on budgeting, city services

October 17, 2009 

With jobs disappearing, retirement savings shrinking and home values plunging, voters will bring a full plate of worries with them to the ballot box Nov. 3.

In Modesto's three City Council races, voters are watching candidates closely for signs of how they'll handle tight budgets while continuing to provide city services.

"People are saying, how do you think we got here and what should we do to get out?" said Modesto-based political consultant Mike Lynch. "All the legs on the tripod are significantly weaker than they were before. In the past you might have an employment worry, you might have had a home value worry, you might have had a pension worry. Now you have all three.

"It's a quantum leap in the intensity of concern."

With that in mind, The Bee asked City Council candidates the following questions


Given that the city budget isn't likely to improve next year, what would you do with existing resources to improve public safety? Where would you cut next in the city budget? If the budget improves, what would you fund?

District 5

Joe Cataline

To improve public safety, Cataline said he'd like to see the Police Department refocus its efforts. Cataline said officers have told him the gang unit sometimes finishes work at 8 p.m. He'd like the unit to work later into the night, when more gang crime happens.

He's interested in expanding the gang injunction into other parts of the city and increasing programs for young people. "We're not going to see our long-term crime rates drop if we don't put more effort into working with young minds," he said.

As for budget cuts, Cataline said, the first place that needs cutting is the City Council's salary. "We just have to be smarter about how we manage our resources. I think it would show great leadership if (council members) took that salary rollback." (City council members' salaries increased from $9,600 to $24,000 a year in 2008.)

If the budget picture improves, Cataline said, his top priorities would be funding police, ending brownouts at fire stations and restoring help for youth activities.

Kristin Olsen

Olsen said she'd like to see the Police Department look at how it prioritizes functions. "The Police Department has a patrol unit, a traffic unit, a gang unit, all working within the department," she said. "We need to prioritize those services so that the police department is able to be as responsive as possible to the citizenry, and also make strides toward fighting crime."

Another important step is to form partnerships with businesses, churches and nonprofits to craft a "holistic approach" to public safety, Olsen said.

If more cuts are necessary, Olsen said, she wants to "look at all of the departments, line item by line item, to look for any potential efficiencies."

She suggested reviewing city insurance, workers compensation and disability contracts to see if the city could save money. Her first priority when the budget improves is to fund law enforcement.

District 4

Joe Muratore

To shore up public safety, Muratore suggested using the neighborhood-based model that's worked well in La Loma. The La Loma Neighborhood Association runs a private security patrol and organizes residents for community cleanups.

He said that can be replicated in other parts of Modesto. "It goes beyond just police and fire; it's about neighborhoods that are well-lit, that Neighborhood Watch is happening, and that neighbors are keeping an eye out for each other," Muratore said.

When it's time to consider budget cuts, Muratore said, the council must "go line by line through the budget" to decide where to make painful cuts.

If more funds become available, Muratore said he'd put the money toward public safety and neighborhood programs that promote it.

Jeff Perine

Perine said crime will go up as the economy worsens, so he'll make sure that police and fire are the last to be cut if more budget-tightening happens. He'd seek alternative sources of funding for public safety. "We've got to make our case loud and clear to the federal and state government to get grants," Perine said.

As for future budget cuts, Perine said, he'd want to look closely at cuts that the council has made before making new ones. "I want to work with the existing council to see the reason for the cuts they made, and to see if they're going to allow us to have efficiencies, or if they're going to set us up for liabilities," Perine said.

If the city sees an increase in revenues, Perine said, the the first thing he would do is get the Police Department back to full staffing.

Robert Stanford

To address public safety, Stanford wants to see an overhaul at the Police Department. Stanford said he wants to ensure that the Police Department doesn't have too many managers for its front-line officers. He'd track how the department prioritizes its calls to make certain minor offenses like jaywalking don't draw resources from serious crimes. He'd promote closer ties between the Police Department and Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department.

"Before I make cuts, I would be trying to cut waste first, and see if there's any way work could be performed more efficiently," Stanford said.

He suggested taking a hard look at code enforcement, parks and public works spending in particular.

Funding police, fire and parks would be at the top of Stanford's list when finances stabilize.

District 2

Dave Geer

To meet public safety needs, Geer said, he would do whatever he can to "maintain as many officers on the street as possible."

Geer suggested that groups such as Neighborhood Watch programs and Crime Stoppers can help pick up the slack.

If the city needs to make further budget cuts, Geer suggested reducing vehicle and tree maintenance and possibly trimming graffiti abatement. He said he'd like to see more public partnerships to help parks. Voters in District 2 "depend on the parks department for the recreation, (because) they don't have the disposable income," Geer said.

"I suppose there could be another 5 percent staff cut, not replacing people who retire or resign, leaving positions open, and as a last resort, layoffs," Geer said. "Whether that could be done and maintain the modicum of public services that's absolutely necessary, that's a question I can't answer."

When the city's cash flow improves, Geer said, his first move would be to fund investments in roads, sewers and waterlines in District 2.

District 2 candidate Al Nava did not respond to requests for an interview.


QUESTION: There probably won’t be any more money in the Modesto city budget for police and fire next year. What will you do with existing resources to improve public safety?

District 5

Joe Cataline

I think it’s a matter of working with the Police Department and refocusing, if you will. Some of the police officers I’ve talked with say the gang task force is typically finished by 8 p.m. To me that’s a mistake, because most gang activity takes place later in the evening.

I like the idea of the gang injunction. I think there’s a lot of potential there. From the research I’ve seen, it’s worked well in other cities like Fresno. I’d like to see about expanding that into other areas.

We also have to start putting more of an emphasis of working with the young kids in our community. We’re not going to see our long-term crime rates drop if we don’t put more effort into working with young minds. I’d like to see police involved with that.

Kristin Olsen

Part of what I think we need to do is working closely with the Police Department to prioritize the functions within the department. I know (Police Chief Mike) Harden is working on that already. The police department has a patrol unit, a traffic unit, a gang unit, several units all working within the department. We need to prioritize those services so that the police department is able to be as responsive as possible to the citizenry, and also make strides toward fighting crime and curbing drug and gang violence.

During the budgeting process, we need to be mindful of emphasizing core services as the top priority for budget funding, and public safety is the top priority in my mind. (Another) element would be continuing to focus on partnerships and how the city can work with the county, as well as businesses, churches and nonprofits to find a holistic approach to public safety.

District 4

Joe Muratore

In making the most of existing resources, we have to use alternative methods for making our city safer. For example, with the La Loma Neighborhood Association neighborhood ownership model and private security patrol, we have an opportunity. It goes beyond just police and fire, it’s that neighborhoods are well lit, that Neighborhood Watch is happening, and that neighbors are keeping an eye out for each other. We have an effective model for this in the La Loma neighborhood that we’ve applied for several years now that’s perfect for times like these.

Jeff Perine

Until I get a full grasp and understanding of the budget, it’s premature to determine what can be done. We’ve got to make our case loud and clear to the federal and state government to get grants. As the economy continues to worsen, I believe that crime will go up. I’ll do all that I can to make sure that police and fire are the last to be cut.

Robert Stanford

The very first thing I would do is, I think The Police Department needs an overhaul. I believe their methods and their management is out of control. I’d probably start with chain of command. I don’t like to see a sergeant or lieutenant for every three street officers. That seems like overkill. I would look at how they prioritize calls, how many squad cars they send to each call. They send three cars for a jaywalker, I see it all the time. Something’s wrong there. I’d take a real good look at the gang task force and the Modesto Police Department’s relationship with the sheriff’s department and see what I could do to promote that relationship becoming a little more productive.

District 2

Dave Geer

I’ll do whatever I can to maintain as many officers on the street as possible, and recommend cutting back at staff levels before I cut back on officers available to the public for their safety in the district.

I’d do my best to encourage civic organizations to pick up the slack as much as possible, to encourage Neighborhood Watch programs and Crime Stoppers. Without the resources at the city level, you just have to enlist the assistance of the public and organizations like Crime Stoppers and Neighborhood Watch and do the best we can at that level. I definitely want to maintain the level of officers and patrol cars as much as we can. Knowing that we’re below 1.85 officers per 1,000 residents, we’re nowhere near that. So whatever can be done to not make it less than it already is, I would as a City Councilman try to maintain at least that level and look for funding sources that can maintain it.

District 2 candidate Al Nava did not respond to requests for an interview.


QUESTION: The city has already cut almost 10 percent of its work force this year, and the budget isn’t likely to improve in the year ahead. Where would you cut next? If the budget improves, what would you fund?

District 5

Joe Cataline

The first thing we need to do is for current council members who are receiving the new salary, we need to do a 25 percent rollback for everybody. In the long-term it’s not a whole lot of money but it will save taxpayers thousands of dollars that could be used for other programs, like keeping parks open, and the Weed and Seed program.

It is tough and the council had to make some real sacrifices. I guess the next step is that we have to make sure we’re spending our funds wisely. A few weeks ago the council was talking about spending $25,000 to hire an outside consultant. We just have to be smarter about how we manage our resources. I think it would show great leadership if (council members) took that salary rollback.

In a perfect world, if things improved, I’d like to hire some more police officers and utilize those officers for essential safety programs, especially the gang unit.

If we could afford to stop browning out a fire department, that would be number two. If we can’t as a city protect our citizens, then we’re not doing our job. In addition to that, if we could find the funds to put into Leisure Bucks and recreation programs to get kids involved and make them productive, civic-minded citizens, in the long-term and short-term, that’s what’s going to make a difference in our crime rate.

Kristin Olsen

I think it’s too early to say where I would cut next. If the state comes back to Modesto and says you have to give us more money, if at the end of the day we have no other choice than to cut more, at that time we’ll have to look at all of the departments, line item by line item, to look for any potential efficiencies. Public safety would not be the first place I would go.

Parks and recreation is a great example of new partnerships and new ideas that have arisen as a result of this fiscal crisis. Some of those outcomes have yet to be realized.

(If more funds become available) the first place I would go would be to hire more police officers. There’s not a question in my mind. I’m fully committed to improving the staffing in the Police Department to promote more officers on the street and enhance our efforts in combatting drug and gang violence.

Another place where I think there may be some potential for savings is in the city’s insurance programs. In health insurance, workers compensation and long-term disability.

District 4

Joe Muratore

The answer to this is we’re just going to go have to go line by line through the budget. We’ve cut in the easy places, and the cuts we’re going to have to make now are harder and more painful. It’s a matter of going through the budgets line by line and finding those cuts.

If there are additional funds, they need to be applied in public safety. Our number one priority is keeping the city safe and that’s where I’ll apply the funds first. It’s not simply about funding more positions, although that may well be a part of it. It’s also about funding initiatives and neighborhood programs that increase public safety.

Jeff Perine

This question has come up several times with voters. It really is on everybody’s mind. My answer is, Modesto has never gone through cuts like we’ve been through. I want to make sure the cuts we’ve made aren’t going to set us up for further liability down the road. With your family budget, you can put off some expenses for a while, like not getting your car’s oil changed, but if you do that for too long, you’re setting yourself up for liabilities. I want to work with the existing council to see the reason for the cuts they made, and to see if they’re going to allow us to have efficiencies, or if they’re going to set us up for liabilities.

If things do improve, the first thing I want to do is get the Police Department back to its full staffing.

Robert Stanford

(I would considers cuts in) code enforcement. Not big cuts, but I would be looking very strongly at code enforcement. I would really look at some of the duties these departments perform and try to shore up their duties. Going around all day and looking at dogs to see if they have tags? That’s a good example. I see a lot of waste in how money is spent. I would look at Parks and Recreation and see what they’re doing and see if they’re really doing what they say they’re doing. I would look at public works and see if we’re getting our money’s worth.

But before I make cuts I would be trying to cut waste first - and see if there’s any way work could be performed more efficiently. And of course I would get consensus from other council members before making cuts.

I believe there’s a way to free up other money. That bus maintenance facility, that’s a good example. There’s money, especially (on the consent agenda). If I had the time I would add up previous consent calendars and show where we’ve spent millions of dollars that we don’t even know about.

(If funding become available) I would fund public safety number one, fire number two, then I would fund parks and recreation and code enforcement. But before I funded anything, I would make sure that efficiencies were in place. I would be able to show the general public so that they could understand, “Look, this is how your tax dollars are spent.” If we get flush with cash, I’m not going to say, OK time for a new strategy. I’m going to shore up parks and rec and the police department to see how they spend their money and how they respond to calls, because it effects more than money, it affects quality of life.

District 2

Dave Geer

Well, there has been some success in cutting at the Parks and Recreation Department where the public has stepped in and picked up the slack. Although I hate to (make cuts in Parks and Recreation) because the public, and the public in District 2, depends on the parks department for their recreation. They don’t have the disposable income to go out of town, so they depend on the parks department, so it’s a very reluctant cut.

I would ask the maintenance department to come up with ways to postpone maintenance without destroying the fleet. Maintaining the trees we have, but not planting anymore. That would save quite a bit of money.

I suppose there could be another five percent staff cut, not replacing people who retire or resign, leaving positions open, and as a last resort, layoffs. Whether that could be done and maintain the modicum of public services that’s absolutely necessary, that’s a question I can’t answer. You can’t get blood out of a stone and the budget situation is horrible. It’s probably one of the reasons so few candidates threw their hat in the ring.

As much as I hate to say it, we could possibly cut back on graffiti abatement and implore homeowners and business owners to get paint from the city at a discount if possible. There’s going to have to be a lot of work donated by the public — that’s all there is to it — to maintain a quality of life that people will endure and accept. It sounds awfully austere, but I think that’s the kind of thing we may be looking at.

(If more funds become available) I would first fund the neglected infrastructure in the second district. I want what the second district hasn’t had for much too long — that’s infrastructure improvements and sidewalks and streets and just amenities for District 2. The county has spent tens of millions of dollars on the sheriff’s headquarters and the welfare building. I think too much money was spent on them, to the point where infrastructure needs in many parts of the city, especially District 2, have been neglected. I defy anyone to argue with me on that.

District 2 candidate Al Nava did not respond to requests for an interview.


Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at lalbrecht@modbee.com or 578-2378. Follow her at Twitter.com/BeeReporter.

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