Our View: Modesto leaders must regroup on budget after tax hike defeat

November 9, 2013 

With the defeat of Measure X confirmed by almost final election results, the Modesto City Council will need to make some immediate cuts and have some serious discussions about the years ahead.

As a general tax proposal, Measure X needed 50 percent plus one vote to pass but 48.7 percent of the electorate voted yes, with nearly all of the votes counted. Fewer than 600 votes made the difference.

We don’t think that the voters’ reluctance to increase the sales tax rate by 1 percent means they would say no to any tax increase. Most recognize that the city does need to spend more money on police and many, we think, would be willing to support a tax designated specifically for public safety, though these dedicated taxes require two-thirds’ voter approval.

The size of this tax increase – roughly $26 million a year for six years – also was a factor. Why are you asking for so much, many citizens wanted to know.

Three new council members will be seated shortly – Tony Madrigal for District 2, Bill Zoslocki for District 4 and Jenny Ketchum Kenoyer for District 5. They need to be brought up to speed on the basics and on where the city stands in terms of revenue and obligations. That process needs to be more forthcoming than some of the budget discussions were last spring.

There are many needs in our community. One of them is for more money to improve streets, roads and transit. We firmly believe that Stanislaus County needs to become a self-help county, which means it needs to raise money for transportation improvements that can be used to obtain outside help. State and federal agencies are willing to give more to counties that help themselves.

Measure X was a big ask, with a caveat that if a countywide transportation tax was approved, the city would turn half of its money over for that purpose. Voters were skeptical about that promise, as they were skeptical about the rushed process to get Measure X on the ballot.

There’s no doubt city leaders face some tough budget decisions in coming months. Vacant positions likely will have to be left unfilled; there may be more layoffs and Modestans could feel the pain in fewer services. City officials need to be honest without using scare tactics. And they need to ask residents what services they will do without or are willing to bear the burden of continuing.

If the budget deliberations are honest, thorough and transparent – understandable without being overly simplistic – Modestans will appreciate the tough choices that have to be made and may show a willingness to support a smaller tax proposal.

The city needs some more money. And just as much, it needs credibility with residents who are reassured that city officials have learned from past mistakes and are operating the city efficiently and with accountability.

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