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November 6, 2013

Modesto officials brace for Measure X’s defeat

Modesto officials believe Measure X – the 1 percent sales tax in Tuesday’s election – will not pass and have started talking about spending cuts to the city’s roughly $110 million general fund budget, which pays for public safety, parks and recreation and other programs.

Modesto officials believe Measure X – the 1 percent sales tax in Tuesday’s election – will not pass and have started talking about spending cuts to the city’s roughly $110 million general fund budget, which pays for public safety, parks and recreation, and other programs.

Measure X needs a simple majority to pass, but according to the latest unofficial results, 50.9 percent of the electorate voted against the tax, with 49.1 percent voting for it.

Mayor Garrad Marsh said he and other city officials do not believe Measure X will get enough votes from the ballots that still need to be counted to pass. The measure is trailing by 294 votes among the 16,634 that have been counted.

“I felt the community would have stepped up to have better police and a safer community, and I was wrong,” he said Wednesday.

The Stanislaus County election office has counted 34,644 of the ballots that were cast in races throughout the county and has about 13,000 more to count, with nearly all of them absentee ballots received on or just before Tuesday. It’s not known how many of these ballots include Measure X votes. The election office might release an updated count Friday.

Modesto was one of 10 California cities with a sales tax on Tuesday’s ballot. The nine others – including a three-quarter of a cent sales tax for bankrupt Stockton – passed. Like Measure X, the nine other tax measures required a simple majority to pass.

Measure X was expected to raise roughly $26 million annually over its six-year life. The City Council passed a resolution stating its intent to spend half of the tax on hiring more police officers and firefighters and for other public safety needs, a quarter on roads, a tenth on restoring financial reserves, and the balance on parks and other purposes.

Supporters said the tax was needed to restore budget cuts made since 2008 because of declining general fund revenues. For instance, Modesto has reduced its number of police officers by about a fifth.

Marsh, City Manager Greg Nyhoff and other top city officials met Wednesday for their first discussion on how to close the general fund deficit.

City officials have said the deficit is $9 million to $11 million, but Marsh said it is closer to $6 million because the larger amounts include the roughly $3 million city departments typically have not spent and carry forward to the next budget.

Marsh said nothing has been decided and that he and Nyhoff are developing recommendations they plan to bring to the City Council’s Finance Committee in December. Those recommendations then will go to the full council for discussion and possible adoption.

Marsh said he would like to cut about $2 million from the city’s current budget year, which ends June 30, and an additional $4 million for the fiscal year that starts July 1. His recommendations include:

•  A citywide hiring freeze, though some key employees would be replaced if they left.
•  Downsizing the Modesto Regional Fire Authority by nine firefighters and closing one of the city’s 11 stations. A grant pays for nine firefighters. Marsh said when the grant ends March30, the city would eliminate nine firefighter positions and close a station. Some of those eliminated positions could come from retirements.
•  Ending the city’s financial support of about $200,000 to the Modesto Convention & Visitors Bureau and about $66,000 to Stanislaus Economic Development & Workforce Alliance, and withdrawing its memberships from the League of California Cities and similar organizations.
•  Closing Dryden Golf Course and eliminating the city’s community forestry division. The division trims and maintains the city’s thousands of trees. If it ended, care of the trees would fall to property owners, saving the city more than $1 million. Marsh said he needs more information before considering whether to move forward on these items.

“My goal is to take all reasonable steps to maintain as much of our public safety as we can,” he said. “But there is no way to get the (budget) number that we have to without impacting public safety.”

Nyhoff said after five years of budget cuts, residents can expect several more years of cuts. “This is not one year and you’re out of it, ” he said.

Measure X supporters were bolstered by a May survey the city commissioned that showed 60 percent of the survey takers supported a 1percent sales tax. And the Safer Stronger Modesto, Yes on X campaign raised more than $180,000 toward the measure’s passage, with $153,800 of that from the Modesto Police Officers Association and Modesto City FireFighters Association.

The No on Measure X – Tough Love for Modesto campaign raised $1,800.

“I just don’t know,” Marsh said when asked why Measure X did not do better. “Maybe people didn’t believe we made significant (budget) cuts. Maybe they didn’t trust how we have operated the city. The No on X campaign said, ‘Live within your budget.’ We heard that and we will respond to that.”

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