Modesto residents favor tax to help fire and police service, survey reveals

kcarlson@modbee.comJune 4, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textKen Carlson
    Title: Staff writer
    Coverage areas: County government, health and medicine, air quality, the environment and public pension systems
    Bio: Ken Carlson has worked 13 years for The Bee, covering local government agencies in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. His in-depth reporting has focused on access to health care and public employee pensions.
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— Results of a survey suggest that Modesto residents support a sales tax increase for police and fire service.

But the results of the phone survey delivered Tuesday to the City Council didn't seem to sway pro-business council members who think economic development or cost cutting is the way to improve the city's fiscal health.

The results could lead to a council decision in the next several weeks on whether to put a tax measure on the November ballot.

The FM3 Research firm surveyed 400 city residents May 6-8 about public safety, quality of life and their satisfaction with city services. According to the results, there was strong support for a half-cent sales tax for public safety and a 1 cent general purpose tax for parks maintenance, road repairs, and police and fire service.

Consultant Curtis Below said the support for a half-cent tax was 71 percent. That number included 45 percent who said they definitely favored a tax, 24 percent who said they probably supported it and 2 percent undecided but leaning toward voting "yes."

A 1 cent general tax was supported by 60 percent of the people surveyed. Below said registered voters were chosen at random for the survey, which had a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points.

Although the largest support was for a half-cent safety tax, Below noted that it's not that far above the two-thirds threshold needed for ballot-box approval. The general purpose tax, requiring more than 50 percent approval, had a larger cushion of support from those surveyed.

Residents said they were fond of the quality of life in Modesto, with 65 percent rating it as good to excellent, but there were deep concerns about crime and jobs. Drugs, gangs and the local economy were regarded as serious problems by 80 percent of respondents or more.

According to the research firm, 75 percent felt the city needed additional funding.

The residents were asked to rate their priorities if the city had more funds. Topping the list was "maintaining emergency response times," supported by 83 percent, followed by gang prevention (82 percent) and safer neighborhoods (81 percent). More than 75 percent thought that efforts to attract business to Modesto also was a top priority.

As for their overall impression of Modesto, 48 percent thought the city was going in the right direction, but 34 percent said it was on the wrong track. More than 70 percent said they liked their neighborhood.

The next crucial question is whether there's support on the City Council to put one of the tax measures on the ballot. Mayor Garrad Marsh has talked of a sales tax increase since February, but council members said Tuesday they were in the dark about who ordered the survey and framed the questions.

Small sample size?

Councilwoman Stephanie Burnside said there should have been questions about cutting expenses as an option instead of just focusing on increased funding. She added that 400 respondents seemed a small sample for a city of more than 200,000 residents.

Councilman Dave Cogdill said there are other ways to generate revenue for services, such as creating jobs and expanding Modesto's tax base.

Critics of a sales tax increase say it would doom any effort to get approval for a countywide road tax, deemed as necessary for economic growth.

City Manager Greg Nyhoff said he worked with the consultants to develop the $35,000 survey to touch on issues and priorities discussed at public forums. The results can guide the council in trying to enhance revenue or make hard decisions about services to bridge budget gaps, he said.

Nyhoff said he was pleased with survey responses about satisfaction with city employees. Eighty-five percent said employees were courteous, and 72 percent were satisfied with customer service. Other results gave lower priority to expanding airport services or flights to and from Los Angeles, favored by 31 percent.

When asked by Modesto Chamber of Commerce President Cecil Russell if the council would soon vote on preparing a ballot measure, Marsh said an item could come before the council in coming weeks. The council has until early August to decide.

After the meeting, Councilman Joe Muratore said he had not made up his mind. "It was an interesting survey. There is a lot more to talk about," he said.

On the Net:

The survey results are available on the city website, www.ci.modesto.ca.us.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or (209) 578-2321.

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