Two on Modesto council critical of mayor's handling of budget

kvaline@modbee.comJune 24, 2013 

  • 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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— Two Modesto City Council members voiced their frustration with how the mayor has handled his upcoming 2013-14 fiscal year budget during a Monday meeting of the council's Finance Committee.

Councilwoman Stephanie Burnside accused Mayor Garrad Marsh of trying to scare the public with threats of deep cuts to balance future budgets. Marsh is expected to ask council members tonight to put a 1-cent or half-cent temporary sales tax increase on the November ballot.

Burnside repeated her criticism that while Marsh has called for a sales tax increase since February, he failed to work with the council to develop his proposal. She added that she has not always received honest answers to her questions.

"Anytime you have statistics and numbers, there does tend to be that ability to maneuver with them and paint the picture you want with them," she said after the meeting.

"There is no doubt our fiscal outlook is bleak," Burnside continued. "My concern comes from the lack of collaboration and honesty. That is what bothers me the most."

Councilman Dave Cogdill Jr. said he also was concerned with how the budget had been developed as well as with a recent community survey commissioned by City Manager Greg Nyhoff. The city paid a consultant about $35,000 to randomly sample 400 city residents on their satisfaction with city services and their support of a tax increase.

Council members have complained about being kept in the dark as the survey was planned and executed.

"It's very unnerving to think I'm being manipulated, and there is a lot going on behind the scenes," Cogdill said.

The two made their comments at the Finance Committee meeting as they heard a report from Marsh and Nyhoff on potential additional cuts of $573,689 from the city's 2013-14 general fund budget. Councilman Joe Muratore is the third committee member.

The general fund is projected to have $104.4 million in revenues against $116.2 million in expenses. Marsh has proposed using $9.9 million in one-time money, such as general fund reserves, and $1.9 million in reductions to balance the budget.

The council is expected to give its final approval tonight to Modesto's $344 million 2013-14 operating budget, which includes the general fund. The 2013-14 fiscal year starts next week.

The council has the most discretion over the general fund, and about 70 percent of the fund pays for public safety.

The Finance Committee voted 2-1 to send the $573,689 in proposed cuts to the City Council for possible adoption at the council's July 9 meeting. Burnside voted "no."

The proposed cuts include eliminating several allocated but unfilled positions and eliminating more than $200,000 in discretionary spending.

Marsh thanked committee members for airing their concerns with him. He repeated his concerns that Modesto faces deep budget cuts within a couple of years if it cannot find a short-term revenue source.

He said the city has spent $50 million from reserve accounts in recent years to balance its budget. He said there is $20 million left in those accounts.

Marsh, who was elected last year, said he and his predecessor, Jim Ridenour, expected the economy and city revenues to rebound. But that has not happened.

Marsh was expected to present deeper budget cuts to the Finance Committee but did not because he said he believed that information would be too devastating.

Burnside said she considered those deeper cuts to be a tactic designed to create hysteria, and Cogdill said it's important the mayor publicize the complete picture of the city's finances. Cogdill said residents need to have the full picture, especially if they may be asked to pay more in taxes.

Cogdill added that he did not think a tax increase would pass unless the city changes the way it does business. He said voters would not pay more in taxes if the money were to go toward higher compensation for police officers and firefighters and if the city were unable to find more efficient ways of doing business.

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

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