Atwater's approval of a half-cent sales tax for public safety created headlines that caught the attention of Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh.
The mayor wants to put a sales tax increase before Modesto voters in November in an effort to hire more frontline police officers and strengthen fire protection.
"I have always thought our (safety tax) has a reasonable chance," Marsh said Thursday. "It's a big hurdle to get a two-thirds vote."
Atwater's measure barely cleared that hurdle this week, getting 67.1 percent of the votes cast in a special election. The measure's success could embolden a campaign to convince Modesto voters that a safety tax is worthwhile.
Marsh said he believes it's best to put the decision before Modesto voters at the same time as City Council district elections in November. He said the safety tax is not just his proposal. Council members will have input on the final details of the ballot measure, which will specify the tax rate and its duration.
A half-cent sales tax would generate $13 million a year.
Atwater residents approved Measure H in a city that had taken desperate action to avoid bankruptcy, which added a sense of desperation to the sales tax proposal. Atwater police officers took a 22 percent pay cut last year.
Marsh said Modesto is on more solid ground than Atwater. He wants clear language in the Modesto measure that the revenue is for additional officers and firefighters not to cover benefits for current employees, he said.
"Ours will be something where citizens see we are trying to improve safety in our city," Marsh said.
In the past five years, declining revenue resulted in Modesto cutting 97 positions in the Police Department and 50 in the fire service. Today, Modesto has 85 fewer police officers than the average for cities with the same population in California.
"We have half the police officers than the national average and we have one of the highest crime rates," Marsh said. "We can't do our job of protecting the people of Modesto with the resources we have now."
Bob Benedetti, a political science professor at University of the Pacific in Stockton, said public safety taxes have been proposed with mixed results in California. They have a better chance of getting approval when local government makes a compelling case for the tax increase.
Atwater's dire financial condition might have helped voters there see a need for Measure H. Benedetti noted that Vallejo residents approved a sales tax increase after that city came out of bankruptcy.
"At a certain point, people don't want to make the choice between bankruptcy and safety," Benedetti said.
Two cities in Stanislaus County have extra taxes intended to fund public safety. A half-cent sales tax received more than two-thirds voter approval in Ceres in 2007, and a general tax hike won majority approval in Oakdale.
Modesto Councilman Dave Lopez said the Atwater results seem encouraging but it's hard to gauge local support for a sales tax increase.
"If it's worth it for Modesto residents to have a half-cent tax, they will let us know," Lopez said. "We have to find a way to put more police on the streets."
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2321.