Balanced budget means fewer Modesto cops, firefighters

05/01/2014 7:05 PM

05/01/2014 9:42 PM

There are no surprises in Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

In his budget message released Thursday, the mayor repeats themes he has raised since city voters rejected Measure X – a 1 percent sales tax – in the November election: Modesto will live within its means. Marsh’s budget even sets aside $3 million in reserves for the $107 million general fund.

“This is the first time in many years,” Marsh wrote in his budget message, “that the city has had a general fund budget that does not rely on one-time money to fund ongoing operations. ... My goal is fiscal sustainability by aligning our general fund expenditures with its revenues.”

The general fund makes up about a third of the city’s proposed $340 million operating budget, but it draws most of the attention because about 70 percent of the fund pays for public safety.

The downside to the mayor’s budget is the city will have fewer police officers and firefighters. It faces losing about 18 to attrition as the Police Department and Modesto Regional Fire Authority eliminate vacant positions. Marsh’s budget proposes cutting $2 million each from police and fire.

Modesto has been losing police officers and firefighters for several years since revenues fell in the Great Recession. For instance, the Police Department was allocated about 290 officers about six years ago and will end its current budget year June 30 with an allocation of 219. Modesto has cut other services as well, such as reducing park maintenance and fixing streets less often.

The water and sewer funds – the two other main components of the operating budget – are relatively stable because they are funded by ratepayers. The general fund is primarily funded through sales, property and other taxes and has lost $20 million in revenue in seven years. Revenues are beginning to rebound but not enough to keep pace with rising expenses, such as increased pension costs.

Some of the highlights from the mayor’s proposed budget include:

•  Reducing the city’s general fund subsidy to Modesto Centre Plaza – the city’s convention center – from $600,000 to $300,000. Finance Director Gloriette Genereux said Modesto is reducing the subsidy because by Jan. 1 the city expects to reach a decision on Centre Plaza, such as closing it, leasing it or turning its operations over to DoubleTree Hotel. Any of those options would eliminate the subsidy. “It’s not going to be status quo,” she said. “Some type of resolution is going to occur.”
•  Eliminating the $1.3 million in general fund support for the community forestry program, which prunes and maintains the city’s 200,000 trees in its parks and along its streets. The city is proposing a modest increase to monthly garbage bills, such as about 5 percent for residential customers, to make up for the lost revenue. City officials say they cannot reduce the forestry program further because the green waste it generates helps the city meet a state mandate of diverting half of its garbage from landfills.
•  Completing a reorganization of city government. That includes merging the human resources and informational technology departments into an administrative services department, which would be run by Human Resources Director Joe Lopez. Bryan Sastokas, the city’s chief information officer, left several months ago for another job, and his position will not be filled under the reorganization. Marsh wrote that the reorganization will save the general fund $2.2 million, but he includes the $1.3 million from community forestry in his calculation.

Modesto officials expect to release the 2014-15 proposed operating budget today on the city’s website, http://modestogov.com. The City Council’s Finance Committee will hold hearings on the budget Wednesday through Friday. The council is expected to adopt the budget in June.

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