Mayor Garrad Marsh called for a tax increase Wednesday to hire more police officers and firefighters and for other public safety initiatives that would make Modesto safer and encourage businesses and new residents to come here.
Marsh laid out his proposal during his State of the City address before an audience of several hundred business, civic and community leaders at the DoubleTree Hotel.
He said police and fire have been stretched nearly to the breaking point the past few years because of recession-driven budget cuts.
The Police Department has lost more than 50 officers — about 20 percent of its sworn staff — and 14 community service officers. The Fire Department has seen its staffing shrink from 170 sworn firefighters in 2006 to 131 today.
Marsh said the Fire Department responds to emergencies on time in about 60 percent of its calls, down from about 90 percent before budget cuts thinned its ranks.
"This has not resulted in a lost building or a death — yet," Marsh said. "But I think it is only because of the grace of God that is true. We are truly on the edge."
Marsh's remarks came one day after Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors Chairman Vito Chiesa delivered his State of the County address. The two men touched on many of the same themes: spurring economic development, fighting crime and gangs, and better educating workers to attract employers to the area.
Chiesa also raised the possibility of a countywide transportation tax to fix beat-up roads.
In an interview after his speech, Marsh said he was considering a temporary half-cent sale tax increase, which would end after a set number of years. He said such a tax could raise about $13 million annually for public safety.
That would go a long way toward restoring Modesto's general fund budget, which has dropped from about $120 million to about $100 million in several years. About two-thirds of the general fund is spent on public safety.
Marsh envisions placing the tax on the November ballot. But he added that he needs to gather more public input and support for the tax. A sales tax dedicated to public safety would require two-thirds voter approval. The seven-member City Council would have to vote to place the tax on the ballot.
Marsh said the tax would let the city hire about 60 additional police officers, 12 community service officers and 21 firefighters. The tax would fund new initiatives such as installing surveillance cameras in city parks and hiring private security to patrol neighborhoods that agree to establish Neighborhood Watch programs.
The mayor said the city would establish an oversight committee to track how the tax money was spent. He emphasized that the tax would be for new public-safety hires and initiatives.
The proposal has the support of the presidents of the Modesto Police Officers Association and the Modesto City Fire Fighters Association. The two unions represent about 315 police officers, detectives, firefighters, engineers and fire captains.
"We would support that," said Tim Tietjen, president of the firefighters association. " We've been trying to do more with less for a long, long time, and it's getting really thin on the coverage on the streets."
But Tietjen acknowledged that it may be difficult to persuade recession-weary voters to support a tax increase, especially with the possibility of a countywide road tax proposal and with the passage of Proposition 30 in November, which temporarily raises taxes.
The audience at the DoubleTree greeted Marsh's tax proposal politely. But the mayor said reducing the crime rate and improving fire response times are critical if Modesto wants to prosper. He said the city can't attract new residents and businesses if it can't assure them that they are moving to a safe community.
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2316.