Our view - Modesto City Council: We want more money

June 27, 2013 

EC Gang Taskforce05

ED CRISOSTOMO/ecrisostomo@modbee.com A suspect watches as Modesto Police Street Gang Unit Tactical Tracking Team Sgt. Scott Myers, left, and officer Brian Binkley unloads a weapon found in his car at the Airport district during a gang suppression patrol on Friday evening (05-03-13) in Modesto, CA

ED CRISOSTOMO — The Modesto Bee Buy Photo

It's almost certain that the Modesto City Council will go to voters with a proposal for a 1 percent sales tax increase that would be spent on … well, what the council thinks it needs to be spent on.

A large chunk of the estimated $26 million a year collected through the tax increase would go to police and fire, but just how much and for what isn't known. In the rush to get a measure placed on the Nov. 5 ballot, there wasn't time for that discussion.

Basically the council is saying: Trust us, voters, we need the money. We've made lots of cuts the last few years and we just can't make any more. Trust us, we promise to spend your money wisely.

Later on the council probably will pass a resolution indicating its intent on where to spend the money, including the novel idea of promising that half of it would instantly go to roads if a countywide road tax is passed in a few years. But such a resolution isn't binding. It would be another case of "trust us."

We're troubled that most of the discussion on Tuesday's council meeting was not on need for more revenue or how to use it but on how to sell this proposal to voters.

After talking for months about a half-cent increase to put more police officers on the street, the mayor instead proposed a full cent tax for general purposes.

Why the larger amount? Primarily because under state law, a general tax will be easier to pass because it only requires a simple majority — 50 percent plus one — for approval. A tax specified for public safety would need a two- thirds majority. No one even mentioned the idea of a half-cent general tax, which would generate about $13 million — slightly above the amount of red ink for 2013-14.

Only Stephanie Burnside argued for the lower amount dedicated to public safety, saying she felt the case could be made effectively for that. The others opted for more money because, well, it's more likely to pass.

Then their attention turned to how long the tax should be in place. Marsh got little support for his suggested 10 years. Other council members argued it would be easier to sell a shorter term. The compromise that got this proposal through was six years. Councilman Dave Geer was firm in wanting a four-year sunset, so he joined Burnside in opposing the plan.

Finally, the council talked about the composition of an oversight committee that would, again, be used to sell voters on this tax proposal. There was virtually no discussion of what type of oversight the committee would actually provide, only how many people should be on it and what groups they might represent.

The few people speaking against the tax proposal zeroed in on the "we already pay enough" argument. Craig Lewis of Prudential California Realty asked the most probing questions — Has the council really made all the cuts that it can? How exactly would this money be spent? What is the return on investment for taxpayers? They are appropriate questions for a tax increase of any size, but especially this magnitude.

If the council members were going to a banker for a loan based on this vague tax proposal, they would be told to come back with strong accounting of how they had gotten so far in the red and also to come back with a business strategy on how to use the new money. The banker might also suggest that proposing to to boost your annual operating budget by 25 percent in a single year is lofty.

But the council isn't going to a bank and it isn't asking for a loan. It will be asking taxpayers to fork over $26 million a year more — and then saying "trust us" to spend it prudently. The question becomes, based on what you've seen from current city leaders, do you trust them with more of your money?

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