Jeff Jardine

November 6, 2013

Jeff Jardine: Modesto leaders didn’t earn voters’ trust on Measure X

Modesto’s Measure X sales tax is likely headed to defeat because city officials asked for the voters’ trust instead of limiting how the money could have been spent.

No matter the outcome of Measure X, its supporters would have been better off promoting a “Don’t Trust Us” tax.

That “Trust Us” version isn’t playing out too well. The measure trails by a slim margin that is likely to expand by the time all votes are counted.

A couple of things here: Taxpayers are tired of paying taxes when their incomes aren’t going up or, in some cases, have dried up. They are tired of being told the folks at Tenth Street Place know what is best for them. They are tired of being told that basic information involving their tax dollars is on a need-to-know basis when, in fact, taxpayers not only need to know but also deserve to know as open government laws demand.

Officials will tell you they know best when it comes to the city’s involvement in the courthouse site selection, which they kept from the public until the site already was chosen. They knew best about the Archway Commons housing project, for which they paid a developer far more than the land was worth.

They knew best about the Stanislaus Community Assistance Project fiasco – particularly when it came to what they didn’t want you to know about it.

And they knew best about Measure X, beginning with the survey costing taxpayers up to $35,000 to gauge whether such a general fund tax would pass. And the survey said ... 60 percent of the 400 questioned would support a 1cent sales tax. Oops.

Consequently, Mayor Garrad Marsh, City Manager Greg Nyhoff and all involved clearly misread the mood of the city and its residents. Too much baggage. The pro-X camp spent roughly $180,000 on its campaign, the majority coming from the police and firefighter associations. It will have paid about $22 per “yes” vote compared with the declared anti-X folk group that spent about $1,800, or about 21 cents per “no” vote.

Roughly 23 percent of the county’s 208,000-plus registered voters took part in the election, according to early, unofficial results. In Modesto, that means Measure X – expected to generate $26 million annually over its six-year term – likely didn’t capture enough imaginations to pass and just enough to fail.

Which brings us to the “Don’t Trust Us” option. Had the city guaranteed Measure X revenues could be used only to put X amount of cops and X number of firefighters on the streets, period, I believe it would have passed with the two-thirds of the vote required of a dedicated tax. I haven’t talked to anyone in this community who doesn’t believe we need stronger public safety. (OK, I’m sure there are some criminals who are pleased with the way it’s going.) Finding supporters who didn’t have a vested interest in passing Measure X wasn’t as easy.

Instead, officials and supporters were mesmerized by a backward law that requires only a simply majority for a general fund tax compared with two-thirds passage for a dedicated tax. It should be reversed. There should be a reward for limitations and self-constraint.

Yes, the council voted 7-0 declaring how it would spend the money, with half going to hire more police and firefighters. But that represented an advisory vote, not an ironclad guarantee. Voters obviously didn’t believe they would stick to their word.

Cops? What cops? Firefighters? What firefighters? Would they divert some of the revenue instead into the courthouse site development or use some of the money to fund pensions for retired police, firefighters and other former city workers, which the city still must do?

Ultimately, the voters might have done their electeds and appointeds a huge favor. Imagine the backlash if the money wasn’t used to put cops and firefighters on the streets as promised? I suspect many of those in uniform today and counting on reinforcements would feel pretty betrayed.

My gosh, such a breach might even cause people to distrust government. That, in my humble estimation, is why Measure X didn’t pass with relative ease.

They wanted you to trust them when they should have asked you not to.

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