County Pulse: Records request reveals the facts

June 21, 2013 

R eporters who cover government are urged to cut through the bull. And only through such an effort was the mystery of the Modesto community survey dispelled.

The May telephone poll of 400 Modesto voters — originally described in reports as a survey of customer satisfaction and attitudes about city services — really was an exercise to test public opinion about a sales tax increase for public safety. The script released by the city showed that voters were quizzed about a tax measure three times during the 20-minute survey.

Internal emails showed that the consultants who arranged the survey were eager to extend their contract with the city to help get the measure approved.

To reveal this, it took a Bee records request and city staff pushing 500 pages of documents to the copy machine. There's nothing wrong with commissioning a survey, but Mayor Garrad Marsh and City Manager Greg Nyhoff determined what fiscal solutions to test with sample voters and concealed it from others on the City Council.

Getting expert help for a tax initiative has been done by scores of cities and counties, our local friends of the library, and Ceres officials who wanted a safer community. City funds can't be spent to promote voter approval of a tax measure, but residents can form a campaign committee and hire outside help from a firm such as the Lew Edwards Group.

According to the agenda, the Modesto council will decide Tuesday whether to move ahead with putting a half-cent safety tax or a 1 cent general tax on the Nov. 5 ballot. The 1 cent sales tax increase, requiring majority approval, would generate $26 million a year to fund police, fire and other city services, a report says.

A 1 cent increase with a 10-year sunset was recommended by the consultants who conducted that taxpayer-funded survey, but it's not recommended by people who believe it would doom chances for a countywide tax for transportation. The half-cent tax would yield $13 million for public safety and would need two-thirds approval.

Any decision to move forward Tuesday won't be final but would set up a July 9 hearing for considering details of a ballot measure.

SALIDA INCORPORATION — Katherine Borges will give a presentation on a Salida incorporation drive at Tuesday's municipal advisory council meeting. Borges serves on the Salida MAC and started organizing an incorporation campaign earlier this year. The council meets at 7 p.m. in the Salida Library community room, 4835 Sisk Road.

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

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