David Wright and Doug Ridenour are talking about two campaign issues that preoccupy Modesto residents: crime and the specter of homelessness.
One of the candidates will succeed City Councilman Dave Cogdill Jr., who did not seek a second term in council District 6 in northeast Modesto. Three council seats and the mayor’s race are on the Nov. 3 ballot.
Ridenour, who worked 25 years for the Modesto Police Department, said there’s no argument on whether public safety is a priority. But the candidates disagree about whether a larger police force would make a difference.
Wright, 63, said California’s softer criminal laws, such as Assembly Bill 109 and Proposition 47, will ensure most offenders spend little or no time behind bars, so there’s no reason to hire more officers.
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“That doesn’t make sense to me,” Ridenour said. Hiring more police would put pressure on gangs, reduce burglary and theft, enhance efforts to deal with vagrants and the homeless, and create safer streets by enhancing traffic enforcement, Ridenour said.
Wright said more neighborhoods need to organize to deter criminal activity.
In 2011, Wright was chairman of a blue ribbon committee that studied homelessness in Modesto and concluded that coordination of services and day centers would help people get off the streets.
The council took no action on the panel’s recommendations, and today there are more homeless than ever, Wright said.
Wright, who owns an insurance business on McHenry Avenue, wants to create three or four day centers in Modesto to help homeless individuals change their lives and move off the streets. At the centers, case managers could assist people with social services; churches could offer counseling; and other groups could provide haircuts, job services or referrals to substance-abuse treatment.
Wright said Modesto needs to cooperate with Stanislaus County’s Focus on Prevention initiative that aims to reduce the impact of homelessness and panhandling. In addition, local government should explore the “housing first” programs that have removed the homeless from the streets in Salt Lake City, he said.
Wright suggested that well-intentioned charities have made it too easy to live outdoors in Modesto. “We need to educate the public on the difference between a hand up and a handout,” he said.
Ridenour, 64, serves on the county’s Focus on Prevention action council on the homeless. He said the city and county could use existing resources to chip away at the homeless problem by pairing mental health clinicians with police officers to contact the homeless who are mentally ill. It would serve to make mental health services available to those individuals.
Ridenour worked for the Police Department from 1988 to 2013, retiring as a sergeant. Before wearing a badge, he was district manager for a paramedic company called Mobile Life Support for nine years, and said he can bring corporate management experience to the council.
The two candidates agree that the city can build on its assets, such as the Gallo Center for the Arts and the downtown restaurant scene, to make the city a place where people want to live and businesses want to locate.
Both are opposed to the city’s one-half percent general sales tax hike on the Nov. 3 ballot. Ridenour said he would favor a specific tax for public safety, which would require two-thirds voter approval.
Ridenour noted that, if it passes, an oversight panel for Measure G should ensure the funds are spent on police and fire services and other stated purposes.
If Measure G is approved, Wright said, the city can expect a public backlash when an expanded Police Department does not result in less crime. He again cited the state laws that reduce penalties for theft, drug violations and other common offenses.
Wright disagrees that Modesto has a revenue problem, but claims city spending is out of control. Growing revenues have swelled the city’s general fund to $110 million this year, and he predicts revenues will exceed projections in the next few years.
He noted that city employee pension costs are $14 million this year, double what they were last year, and will increase to $22.3 million by 2023. According to the city, the pension costs will grow to $22.3 million because of lackluster investment returns of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System; in addition, retirees are living longer and CalPERS wants Modesto to have fully funded benefits by 2020.
Wright proposes to limit current pension benefits and create “cash benefit plans,” which are retirement accounts fueled by city and employee contributions.
Ridenour countered that his opponent has misrepresented the city’s pension costs. He said the $7.3 million cost figure for last year did not include a line item for firefighters who worked for the Modesto Regional Fire Authority. The firefighters are back with the city since the breakup of MRFA in July 2014, which mostly accounts for the $14 million cost figure this year.
Under reforms mandated by state law, Ridenour said, the city changed its pension benefits a few years ago, giving less lucrative benefits to new hires and requiring employees to pay their share of retirement costs.
Ridenour said the city’s cost of leaving CalPERS would exceed $1.1 billion. Among other things, the city would need to make good on benefit promises made to employees in previous labor agreements.
The unions representing Modesto police officers and firefighters are backing Ridenour. Wright said he knew his position on retirement costs was unpopular with unions and he never expected to receive their endorsements.
Wright claims that Ridenour’s background with the Police Department would make Ridenour ineffective in labor negotiations. He alluded to Ridenour family bloodlines in local law enforcement and emergency services.
“Doug is a good person, but sitting there at the table with the unions, I don’t know if he would be representing the public’s interests or representing the interests of family members on the payroll,” Wright said.
Ridenour said his son is a Modesto police officer. Still, the candidate said he believes he could participate in negotiations and approval of labor contracts without violating conflict-of-interest rules.
“I was a police officer and would have the ability to make intelligent decisions, knowing how things work in the Police Department,” Ridenour said. “The fact that I worked for the Police Department would not restrict my decision-making.”
As for improving quality of life and the economic fortunes of Modesto, Ridenour said he wants to learn from other cities that attract employers. “We are turning that corner and doing some really good things for Modesto,” he said.
Wright wants to spruce up major thoroughfares such as Briggsmore Avenue. As in the days when Modesto was voted an All-America City, Modesto needs to have a sense of pride, he said.
“We need to take ownership of the areas we live around, and make our neighborhoods and parks look nice,” Wright said. “Once we do that, people will want to come to Modesto and businesses will want to move here.”
Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321