Modesto mayor: Until revenues grow, we'll continue 'treading water'

kvaline@modbee.comMay 16, 2013 

DN cloudy sunset

DEBBIE NODA/dnoda@modbee.com, A Cloudy sunset on Nov. 27, 2012 under the Modesto Arch, as cars wait for light at I and 9th Street.

DEBBIE NODA — The Modesto Bee

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate text Kevin Valine
    Title: Reporter
    Coverage areas: City of Modesto and nonprofits
    Bio: Kevin Valine has been a copy editor and reporter at The Bee since January 2006. He's worked at the Reno Gazette-Journal, Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune and Paradise Post as a reporter and copy editor. He's a graduate of San Jose State.
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    E-mail: kvaline@modbee.com

— There are no surprises in Modesto's proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Residents should expect more of what they have experienced from the city in the past few years — not enough money to fix streets and sidewalks, maintain parks, trim and keep city trees healthy, and for fast response times from police.

That's the message in Mayor Garrad Marsh's budget message released Thursday for his 2013-14 proposed budget, which starts July 1.

Marsh wrote that while the economy is showing signs of improvement, the recovery will be slow.

The proposed budget has a funding shortfall of $11.8 million for the general fund, over which the City Council has the most discretion. About two-thirds of its revenues pay for police and fire and about a tenth pay for parks.

The budget shows $104.9 million in general fund revenue. Marsh proposes balancing the general fund by using $6.4 million in reserves, taking $3.5 million from workers compensation and employee benefits funds, and cutting $1.9 million primarily by not filling vacant positions and reducing police overtime.

Marsh said despite city employees agreeing to wage and benefit concessions, such as paying more toward their pensions, Modesto's expenses continue to rise. "Every time your electric bills goes up, our electric bill goes up, too," he said.

Marsh said Modesto will face more budget cuts until it can find more money.

"I believe the only logical way out of our dilemma is to have more revenues," he said. "Without it, I see us treading water for the next five to 10 years."

Marsh has talked several times about putting a temporary public safety tax on the November ballot. When asked about that Thursday, Marsh said the community and other council members will need to weigh in on the city's options. "This is not my choice alone," he said.

The city's preliminary 2013-14 operating budget is $351 million. Besides the general fund, the operating budget includes funds for water and waste-water operations. While the general fund has lost about $20 million in five years because of the recession, the other funds have remained stable.

In his State of the City address in February, Marsh proposed including $500,000 in the 2013-14 budget for economic development. He envisioned spending the money to promote Modesto and for incentives to attract businesses.

He scuttled his proposal to maintain city services. He wrote that nearly all of the city's revenue growth will go to public safety, leaving no new money for roads, parks, city trees or economic development.

Marsh's budget proposal calls for increasing the Police Department budget by $743,000 to $49.6 million. The additional money is primarily to keep 11 police officers whose positions had been funded by grants. He said the department also is close to filling 10 vacancies. The department is allocated about 230 officers.

The mayor also proposes to spend an additional $132,000 for the Modesto Regional Fire Authority, increasing its budget to $24.6 million.

Marsh would balance the general fund by using $9.9 million in one-time money from the general fund reserves and workers compensation and employee benefits fund.

Under his proposal, the general fund will have $7 million in reserves. But those reserves are pledged to the debt the city issued to build Tenth Street Place and other facilities. Modesto would be in default of its bond agreement if it were to tap into the $7 million.

Marsh said if the city finds it has any additional revenue after it closes its books on its current fiscal year, he would use that money to replenish the workers compensation and employee benefits funds.

He wrote using one-time money is a practice the city cannot sustain. But he wrote the alternative would be laying off 90 employees — about 8 percent of the city's work force. He wrote the reduction in city services would be felt by every resident.

The City Council's Finance Committee will hold meetings Monday and Tuesday to review Marsh's 2013-14 budget proposal. The meetings are at 9 a.m. in the basement chamber, Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St.

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at kvaline@modbee.com or (209) 578-2316.

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