At long last, the Modesto City Council is scheduled to have a tough talk later this month about its budget outlook, providing Mayor Garrad Marsh the perfect place to make his pitch for a sales tax increase.
What isn't clear to us is whether the budget discussion scheduled for June 25 will be a long-overdue description of reality or is politically timed to pressure the council to put a tax measure on the Nov. 5 ballot. Most likely, it's both.
Marsh said Wednesday that he and the city manager had asked most of the directors to come back with proposals for 10, 20 and 30 percent budget cuts. Public safety police and fire were asked to outline the impact of 5 or 10 percent cuts on the 2014-15 budget.
The mayor, who previously served eight years on the council, said he didn't fully understand how serious the city's budget situation is when he put forward his 2013-14 budget plan earlier this spring. If that's the case, he failed in one of his major responsibilities as mayor. After Jim Ridenour was elected mayor as a political newcomer in 2003, he plunged into learning about the city budget and then steered the council toward very cautious spending decisions.
Marsh has a different style, leaving the daily operations to City Manager Greg Nyhoff and focusing on the big ideas, such as annexing Salida. He should have spent more time getting a solid grasp of finances before proposing a 2013-14 budget that was overly optimistic.
A better proposal to the council without being under the burden of quickly approaching budget and ballot deadlines could have led to thoughtful deliberations during the May budget review, and fully vetted ideas that would help to avoid draconian reductions.
While he previously proposed a half-cent tax for public safety, Marsh said he now favors a one-cent increase that would support police, fire and other services such as parks. This kind of general tax increase only requires a 55 percent approval from voters compared with the two-thirds approval a public safety-only tax would require. While passage of any tax increase is a long shot given the region's poor economy and conservative views on taxes, initiatives that don't have a clear focus and accountability for fund use will have an even larger challenge. We're skeptical whether there's time to put a thorough ballot proposal together.
Given that the city has already made many budget cuts, we anticipate hearing some radical possibilities June 25, suggestions such as selling Modesto Centre Plaza, closing the McHenry Museum and laying off more employees. They will be the kind of proposals that will grab the attention of an otherwise complacent citizenry.
The Modesto council is headed for a contentious budget debate that certainly could have been avoided.