Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh says residents know the city has cut its budget to the bone in the past few years and its police officers and firefighters are stretched thin as they try to keep the public safe.
That's why he believes they would be willing to pay more in sales taxes to hire police officers, firefighters and community service officers, as well as to pay for new public safety initiatives such as surveillance cameras in city parks.
Marsh unveiled his idea during his first State of the City speech Wednesday. He believes voters can be persuaded to approve a tax increase in November if he puts in place measures that ensure the public has input on how the money is spent and safeguards to ensure the money is spent as planned.
"I really believe we need a safer Modesto, and it will benefit everyone's quality of life if we can do that," he said Friday.
He added that improving public safety improves Modesto's chances for economic development. He said businesses won't be willing to come here if they don't believe Modesto is a safe city.
This is not the only tax increase that could come before voters in Stanislaus County and its nine cities.
County Board of Supervisors Chairman Vito Chiesa raised the idea of a countywide road tax during his State of the County address Tuesday. But Chiesa said such a tax measure is a few years away from being on the ballot.
Turlock Mayor John Lazar said Friday that he expects his city will hold a workshop in March to discuss raising revenue for road maintenance. The options include a temporary sales tax hike or creation of benefit assessment districts in older parts of Turlock.
Marsh said he wants to gather input from the public on the parameters of a public safety tax, but he is thinking about a temporary tax increase of a half-cent, which would end after a set number of years.
A half-cent tax increase would raise Modesto's sales tax rate from 7.625 percent to 8.125 percent and add a dime to a $20 purchase.
The tax could raise about $13 million annually. That would go a long way toward restoring the city's general fund, which primarily funds public safety. The general fund has declined from about $120 million to about $100 million in several years.
Because it would be a sales tax dedicated for a specific purpose, Marsh's idea would require two-thirds voter approval. General sales tax increases need only a simple majority.
Sense of community in Modesto
Special taxes can be difficult to pass. Road tax campaigns in 2006 and 2008 won majority support from Stanislaus County voters, but not the required two-thirds approval.
Only 19 of the 43 local tax and bond measures that required two-thirds approval passed on the November ballot, according to the website CaliforniaCityFinance.com, which is operated by Michael Coleman, an expert on local government finance.
Since 2001, just 47 percent of special taxes that required two-thirds approval have passed, according to CaliforniaCityFinance.com. That's in contrast with a passage rate of 66 percent for tax measures that required a simple majority.
"Very few nonschool, supermajority taxes are passing these days except for extensions of existing taxes," Coleman wrote on his website.
But University of the Pacific political scientist Bob Benedetti said Modesto could be an exception.
He said that even though the economic recovery has been slow to take hold in the Northern San Joaquin Valley and residents continue to feel pinched financially, they also recognize their local governments have cut their budgets as much as they can.
Residents know, too, that police have their hands full with prison realignment, which sent more criminals back to county jails to reduce overcrowding in state prisons. Local officials complain it has led to jail overcrowding and the early release of dangerous criminals.
Modesto's advantage, Benedetti said, is its sense of community. "Modesto has a really good sense of itself, a sense of pride," he said. "There's this feeling, 'We don't want the place to go to rack and ruin.' "
Modesto has seen large cuts in public safety in several years. The Police Department has lost more than 50 officers about 20 percent of its sworn staff. The Fire Department has seen its staffing shrink from 170 firefighters to 131.
And crime remains a pressing problem. In 2011, Modesto ranked second in violent crime and first in property crime per capita among the 11 California cities with 175,000 to 250,000 residents, according to the FBI Unified Crime Reports.
Marsh emphasized that it won't be enough just to hire more public- safety workers with the tax increase. He said the city would need to forge stronger relationships with its neighborhoods and other groups and fund such initiatives as providing private security patrols in neighborhoods that form Neighborhood Watch groups.
"I think there is a whole network of things we need to do so we are efficient," the mayor said. "It's not just more police, but more efficient policing."
County road tax a possibility
A countywide sales tax for roads also could be put to a public vote.
Leaders who serve on the Stanislaus Council of Governments, a transportation policy board, are inclined to wait for an amendment to the state Constitution that would lower the threshold for special taxes from 66.67 percent approval to 55 percent.
State lawmakers could put an amendment on the ballot in 2014.
"I'm guessing a transportation tax is a few years away, but we need to prepare now," said Chiesa, the Board of Supervisors chairman and a StanCOG board member.
Chiesa is concerned the half-cent taxes in Oakdale and Ceres, a public safety tax in Modesto and a street repair tax in Turlock would stack the odds against a countywide road tax.
Lazar, the Turlock mayor, said officials in his city are afraid they will never catch up with road repairs. "It's the No. 1 complaint I hear from people," he said. "My personal poll is that people will support this if the money stays in Turlock and improves the streets."
Lazar said instead of waiting for a countywide road tax that could be a few years away, Turlock could write its own tax measure that would be folded into a countywide initiative.
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2316. Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2321.