MODESTO — Mayor Garrad Marsh said Friday that Modesto has cut its budget to the bone in the past several years in the economic downturn and if residents want more police officers and firefighters, they are going to have to pay more in taxes.
Marsh made his remarks at the end of his second Citizens Forum on Public Safety at Modesto Centre Plaza, in which more than 50 neighborhood leaders, business owners, ministers, council members and other community leaders gave their opinions on making Modesto safer.
"Government can't do it alone. Government can't do it if it doesn't have the resources," he said.
Marsh held off giving his opinion until the end so he would not influence forum participants. But he may have a difficult time building support for a tax increase.
Forum participants voted on a series of questions, including whether they favor pursuing a sales tax increase. Seventeen voted they "strongly agree"; 15 voted they "agree, but would like additional information"; six voted "not sure"; and 18 voted they "disagree."
Forum participants also were asked to rank the top six proposals out of 20 they favor pursuing. A tax increase tied for sixth, with 16 votes. The top proposals were community engagement (30 votes); better coordination among nonprofits, governments, faith-based and service groups (27 votes); and investing in neighborhoods (26 votes).
City, police and fire officials attended the forum but did not vote.
Marsh said after the forum that he has no firm plan to pursue raising more revenues for public safety. He said he would need to build consensus if he were to seek a tax increase.
City officials will take the input from the two forums and incorporate them into the City Council's Feb. 22 workshop to update its strategic plan. The council will hold a public forum to gather input as part of the update.
As city officials did at the Dec. 7 public safety forum, they painted a grim picture Friday of the effects of budget cuts on public safety:
The city's general fund, which primarily pays for public safety, has declined from about $120 million to about $100 million since 2008. Although sales tax revenue is starting to rebound and should grow by $1 million annually, it will take many years to get general fund revenues back to pre-recession levels.
The Police Department has lost nearly one-quarter of its positions in the recession, including 56 sworn officers.
The Fire Department has gone from 170 sworn firefighters in 2006 to 131 today and has seen its equipment reduced from 12 engines to 10 engines and from three ladder trucks to one.
Modesto has experienced a crime spike. For instance, auto thefts were up 44 percent and burglaries were up 30 percent from October 2011 to October 2012.
Marsh said just hiring more police officers and firefighters is not enough. The city also has to work with its neighborhoods, community groups and others to make Modesto a safer community.
But he said no matter what strategies the city pursues such as installing surveillance cameras in parks or providing private security patrols to neighborhoods that agree to form Neighborhood Watch groups will take money.
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2316.