It will be déjà vu when Modesto voters go to the polls Nov. 3.
For the second time in two years, they will decide whether they want to pay higher taxes. Voters said “no” in November 2013 when they rejected Measure X, the city’s 1 percent sales tax increase. As a general tax, the measure needed a simple majority to pass but received 49 percent of the vote. The city now has put Measure G on the ballot, a one-half percent sales tax increase.
As a general tax, the funds can be spent on any general government purpose, but the City Council has said it intends to spend the tax on implementing Modesto’s Safer Neighborhoods Initiative. The initiative calls for such actions as hiring more police officers, keeping Fire Station No. 6 in north Modesto open and devoting more resources for code enforcement. More on the initiative is available at www.modestogov.com/prnd/safer-neighborhoods.asp.
The arguments for and against the tax increase are similar to those from two years ago.
Measure G supporters say the tax is necessary because the city’s revenues have not fully recovered from the recession and it does not have the funding to restore public safety and other services cut in the economic downturn. For instance, according to a city document, the number of officers budgeted for the Police Department has dropped from 287 in 2008 to 219 today.
Opponents say the city has not done enough to put its finances in order, and elected officials cannot be trusted with a general tax. Critics also question how the city could have approved pay raises and salary adjustments less than a year ago if its finances are in such poor shape. The raises and salary adjustments will cost the city about $4.5 million annually, with about $2.4 million of the increase falling on the city’s general fund, which primarily pays for public safety.
The City Council approved pay raises totaling 6 percent for police officers and 3 percent for city workers along with the salary adjustments. City officials said the police raises were needed because Modesto was losing too many officers to better-paying agencies, many city workers had not received raises in many years and the pay for some was not competitive.
Measure G would increase Modesto’s sales tax rate from 7.625 percent to 8.125 percent, putting Modesto in a tie with Ceres and Oakdale for the highest sales tax rate among Stanislaus County’s nine cities. The rate is 7.625 percent for the other cities. The measure is expected to bring in $14 million annually over eight years to the city’s general fund.
The Measure G campaign has reported raising $5,000, with all of it coming from Mayor Garrad Marsh and his wife, Dallas.
Measure G supporters say it has safeguards to ensure the money is spent on the Safer Neighborhoods Initiative, including an oversight committee that will monitor the spending. Committee members will be picked by community groups and not the council, which supporters say makes the committee independent. The committee also is expected to make recommendations on how the tax increase is spent.
Supporters say the city also has committed to goals with the measure, including reducing the crime rate by about half to bring it to the state average over the measure’s eight-year life.
Marsh said voters can expect more of the same if Measure G fails – police and fire departments that are understaffed, the city continuing to struggle to keep Fire Station No. 6 open and a crime rate he finds unacceptable.
“If you’re happy with our level of response times for police and fire, if you’re satisfied with the level of crime we have ... and the issues such as homelessness, then we don’t need Measure G,” he said. “If you want to make any of those better, then the city needs a solution. The solution in my mind is more police.”
Marsh also challenged those who say the city has not gotten its fiscal house in order. For instance, the city in recent years has negotiated with its labor groups to have employees pay more of their pension costs and has raised the retirement ages and reduced the pension benefits for new employees, as well as making more budget cuts in the wake of Measure X’s defeat.
Acting Deputy City Manager Joe Lopez said having employees pay more for their pensions is saving the general fund $2.3 million this year. The general fund makes up nearly a third of the city’s roughly $367 million operating budget. Modesto has accounted for rising pension costs in the coming years because the California Public Employees’ Retirement System is requiring its members to pay more in those years. But those costs could rise beyond what Modesto expects. The CalPERS governing board is expected next week to discuss policy changes that could require its members to pay more.
Measure G does not have the support of nearly all of the 13 candidates running for mayor and City Council. These candidates say voters see the need for more public safety services but do not trust the city with a general tax. Some have said the city should have put a special public safety tax on the ballot instead of a general tax. A special tax can only be used for its special purpose but requires two-thirds voter approval.
Former Councilwoman Janice Keating said the oversight committee will have no real power and the tax increase amounts to a “blank check, and the city can spend the tax any way they want.” She also questioned the city’s spending decisions, saying it often spends money on nonessentials, while ignoring the basics, such as adequate public safety staffing. “The spending at City Hall appears out of control to me,” she said.
Kevin Valine: 209-578-2316