Modesto -- The most obvious solution for a safer Modesto is raising taxes, hiring more police and spending money to beef up firefighting units.
Mayor Garrad Marsh held a forum Friday to get other ideas from the community before he unveils a public safety plan that most everyone expects will include additional taxes and hiring. About 100 people from business, education, nonprofit and neighborhood groups took part in the brainstorming at Modesto Centre Plaza.
Participants came up with ideas, such as expanding the tax base through economic development, consolidating local agencies, coordinating neighborhood watches, relaxing gun permit rules, or using city employees to report suspicious activity or code violations.
City officials and an evaluation team will analyze the concepts in the coming weeks. Participants, who were invited or signed up for the forum, will meet again Feb. 1 to consider the analysis and talk about the next steps.
Marsh said Friday's meeting was not the time to share his proposals. In replying to a question, he said Modesto's police force should have the state average of 1.5 officers per 1,000 population; it has 1.1 officers per 1,000 residents.
Reaching the state average would require 85 more officers, which would increase the force to more than 300 officers. The additional personnel would cost an extra $8.5 million annually. The public safety ramp-up could include a mixture of sworn officers, community service officers and private security contracts.
Modesto could follow the lead of other cities that have used sales tax increases to fund public safety, such as a half-cent tax that received more than two-thirds voter approval in Ceres in 2007 and a general tax hike that won majority approval in Oakdale a year ago. Other potential options are a parcel tax increase or assessment districts. It's not clear when officials will announce a funding proposal.
Friday, top officials outlined the problems facing Modesto. Declining revenue resulted in cutting 224 city positions funded through the general fund in the past five years, including 97 slots in the Police Department and 50 in fire service.
The cuts reduced special police units that worked on auto theft, traffic enforcement, gangs, crime prevention and schools as the priority was shifted to keeping officers on the streets. Today, Modesto ranks fifth in violent crime among the 25 largest cities in California; it's second in violent crime and first in property crime when grouped with California cities with 175,000 to 250,000 population.
Officials are especially concerned about a 12-month spike in crime. As of October, the 18 homicides this year was a 50 percent jump over a year ago. The city saw a 24 percent jump in the leading crime categories, including 44 percent increase in auto theft and 23 percent increase in burglary.
Marsh said the city can't count on federal or state government to refresh its coffers, but needs to find its own solution. Another challenge is statewide public safety realignment, which obligates the county to jail nonviolent offenders and monitor low-level prison parolees.
Former Mayor Jim Ridenour said hiring cops will result in more arrests but won't do any good unless offenders are prosecuted and there is room for them in jail. "A lot of times, they are out the door before the cops get the report done," he said.
Some people taking part in group discussions Friday doubted that throwing money at the problem was the solution. About a dozen groups talked about nontraditional tactics for crime prevention and better management of available resources for public safety.
One group called for combining the police force and fire service into one department, as is done in Ceres and Sunnyvale, and consolidating other local entities in Stanislaus County. "We are a poor county and we can't afford to have 10 local governments and 27 school districts," said Dave Halvorson, a businessman.
Suggestions from other groups:
Remove barriers to economic growth so the city can enhance its revenue from property and sales tax.
Explore options for the Modesto Regional Fire Authority to be reimbursed for medical calls. The fire authority saves lives by responding to medical emergencies, but gets nothing to cover its expenses.
Better coordination of neighborhood watch groups and other volunteers, recognition for watch captains and getting groups together to work on solutions.
Consistent rules for issuing concealed weapon permits. Store owners in high-crime areas could be trained by police to protect themselves.
Encourage city employees such as those in public works to report illegal activity they encounter.
Form a citizens oversight committee to review law enforcement.
Create programs to deal with family dysfunction and get young offenders back on the right path.
At one table, interim Fire Chief Gary Hinshaw was drawn into a discussion of medical-aid calls. Group members wanted to know the costs for the services, including training and equipment, and how much time is spent on the calls.
The group also discussed conditions created by vacant commercial buildings, including vandalism downtown and shopping centers frequented by panhandlers and drug dealers. With staff reductions, those violations fall lower on the priority list for police.
Rick Dahlseid was concerned that, at times, it's more difficult to obtain permits from authorities to carry a concealed firearm. "We are getting to the point where we need to be more responsible for protecting ourselves," he said.
Another group focused on social problems and the effects of poverty, which are thought to contribute to increased crime. Sandy Sutton, who is semiretired from running an insurance business, said the city will have far less crime "if we can fix the family."
After most members admitted they could not name their neighborhood watch captain, they advanced an idea to map neighborhood groups and share information through social media. Sutton suggested schools could tap their neighborhoods for volunteers to work with young people.
"My wife and I are mostly retired," Sutton said. "The school in our neighborhood has no relationship with us whatsoever. If they were to ask me to volunteer, I probably would."
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2321.
For further background on the new police chief, go to this story at www.modbee.com/local.