City of Modesto says fallout would be enormous if Measure X fails

kvaline@modbee.comOctober 21, 2013 

PG Measure X

Former Modesto Police Chief Mike Harden speaks in front of a group of supporters of Modesto's Measure X in front of the Modesto Police Department in September.

PATTY GUERRA — Modesto Bee Buy Photo

— Since 2008, Modesto has cut its number of police officers and firefighters by about one-fifth. The city has reduced how much it waters its 72 parks by 30 percent, locks park bathrooms from November through March, and prunes city trees every eight years instead of five.

This is just some of the fallout of the cuts Modesto has made to balance its books after its general fund budget declined by about $20 million during the recession.

That’s why Measure X supporters say voters need to pass the 1 cent sales tax in the Nov. 5 election. (View The Bee's Measure X Video).

They say Measure X will let the city hire 61 police officers and 15 firefighters and keep an additional nine firefighters funded through a grant that expires next year. Supporters say there also will be money to fix streets, pursue economic development initiatives, replenish city reserves, trim trees every four years, keep park bathrooms open year-round, and provide more watering and care of parks.

“I don’t like the condition of the city,” said Mike Harden, a former police chief and the Yes on X Committee chairman. “I’d like to see it healthy, vibrant and safe.”

He and other Measure X supporters say improving safety is critical if Modesto wants to prosper. They say the city can’t attract residents and businesses if it can’t assure them they are moving to a safe community.

Opponents say the city’s real problem is that it has a spending problem.

“The city needs to take a very honest look at what and how much it is spending money in various areas,” said Janice Keating, who served on the City Council from 2001-09 and is a longtime member of the Stanislaus Taxpayers Association, which opposes the tax. She believes the city needs to do more to control its employee costs, especially pension costs.

Keating said the tax would put Modesto businesses at a disadvantage compared with businesses in surrounding cities. The tax would add $1 to a $100 purchase.

Measure X has a six-year life, and city officials estimate it would bring in about $26 million annually, or about $156 million over its life. The tax proceeds would go into the city’s general fund.

The general fund makes up about a third of the city’s roughly $344 million operating budget. The operating budget’s other funds are in good shape. But the general fund – which is fed in large part by sales and property taxes and primarily is used for public safety – has a structural deficit of $9 million to $11 million.

If Measure X passes, it would increase Modesto’s sale tax rate from 7.625 percent to 8.625 percent, which would be the second highest in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. At 9 percent, Lathrop has the valley’s highest sales tax rate, though Stockton has a measure on the November ballot that would increase its sales tax from 8.25 percent to 9 percent.

If Measure X does not pass, city officials have said Modesto faces more budget cuts and further reductions in staffing and services.

Measure X is a general tax; it can be used for any government purpose and needs a simple majority to pass. Before deciding on a general tax, Mayor Garrad Marsh considered bringing forward a half-cent specific tax for public safety. Specific taxes require two-thirds’ voter approval. Marsh has said he settled on a general tax because he came to realize Modesto’s needs were greater than just public safety.

General taxes are more likely to pass than specific taxes. According to the website CaliforniaCityFinance.com, 48 of the 60 general taxes placed by cities on the November 2012 ballot passed. Only five of the 15 measures requiring two-thirds’ approval passed that year.

Modesto is one of 12 California cities that have a general tax on the Nov. 5 ballot, according to CaliforniaCityFinance.com. Two cities have specific taxes on the ballot.

Measure X supporters say there are safeguards in place to ensure the money is well spent. The City Council passed a resolution outlining how it intends to spend the tax: half on public safety; a quarter on roads; a 10th to replenish reserves; and the balance on economic development and other purposes, such as parks and recreation.

The resolution calls for an oversight committee to monitor spending and annual audits. But nothing would prevent the current City Council or subsequent councils from changing how Measure X is spent.

Marsh has said Measure X requires residents to trust the council to follow through with the tax’s spending plan, and residents can vote council members out of office if they don’t honor the intent of Measure X.

“Since it’s a general tax, there is zero guarantee” it will be spent according to the council’s resolution, Keating said. “Based on past practices, the spending habits even over the last two years from City Hall, whether local tax dollars or federal tax dollars, the record has not been stellar. I think it would be a bad idea to give them free rein on $26 million more.”

She and Stanislaus Taxpayer Association President Dave Thomas believe the city has provided information about its finances that is opaque and difficult to follow – an assertion officials deny. “The budget line items are vague, to say the least,” Thomas said.

The resolution to place the tax on the ballot includes the provision that the tax would be reduced from 1 cent to a half-cent in the event voters pass a countywide road tax. The provision states it will be the council’s intent to spend the half-cent on public safety. There is no such road tax on the November ballot, but the idea has been before the Stanislaus Council of Governments and could be headed for a 2014 ballot.

Harden said there are enough safeguards in place and enough need to warrant support of the tax. He disputes the claim that Modesto can cut its way out of its financial difficulties.

He said that in the past five years, the Police Department has curtailed training and deferred maintenance and is putting many more miles on its patrol cars before replacing them. But the department’s primary costs are for police officers and other personnel. “We’ve had four, five, six years of cuts,” he said. “And there will be more cuts if Measure X does not pass.”

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

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