During this month’s hearings on the Modesto 2014-15 budget, Mayor Garrad Marsh said the city faces a public safety emergency because it cannot adequately fund the police and fire departments.
The proposed budget – which starts July 1 – funds police and fire at their lowest staffing levels in more than 20 years, and could result in the closure of one and possibly two fire stations. That’s the fallout of the city living within its means for the first time in years to balance its budget.
It sounds dire. But Modesto officials often send mixed messages.
Here are three examples:
At the same hearing in which Marsh expressed his concern about public safety, City Manager Greg Nyhoff – in one of his last meetings before he leaves for another job – said the City Council might want to consider offering a revenue guarantee to land an airline to provide Los Angeles flights at Modesto Airport.
The guarantee would come from Modesto’s $107 million general fund. About 70 percent of the fund’s revenue is spent on public safety. There was no discussion on how much the city would have to put up, but it probably would be hundreds of thousands of dollars. The airline would use the guarantee to make up any losses it sustains.
Nyhoff said this is worth considering because of the city and its consultant’s success in raising $1.5 million in pledges to persuade another carrier to start the L.A. flights. The pledges are not binding and are from travelers who say they would spend the amount they pledged on tickets. The point of the drive was to persuade the airline to start the flights without a revenue guarantee. Nyhoff said if the flights start, it would not be until 2015.
But that’s not soon enough for the city because the airport is about to lose its only commercial flights. SkyWest Airlines is ending its service between Modesto and San Francisco on June 5. So Modesto has been talking to other carriers, which could start the L.A. flights this year. But they want revenue guarantees.
At a recent council meeting, the council approved developing two proposals to jump-start downtown. City reports say the proposals could cost the general fund as much as $160,000. But city officials said the funding sources have not been identified. Marsh and Councilman John Gunderson were clear they would not support using the general fund. Marsh also told me he would not support a revenue guarantee for the L.A. flights.
The proposed budget says the general fund expects to save $2.2 million from a citywide reorganization. Those savings seem high, so I asked the city for a breakdown. It turns out that most of the “savings” are from transferring $1.3 million from community forestry’s operating budget back to the general fund.
Community forestry would not be out the $1.3 million. That’s because the city has proposed raising garbage bills to make up for the $1.3 million as well as other funding that community forestry is losing. So the savings is actually a rate increase on residents’ and businesses’ garbage bills. The proposed rate increases are modest and maintain an essential service – trimming and maintaining the city’s 200,000 trees along its streets and in its parks – but the way the city has framed the issue can be described as misleading.
There are lots of city employees and officials who are great to work with. They provide direct answers to my questions and help me understand complicated issues. But overall, Modesto has a problem providing clear, consistent information. That erodes the public’s trust in City Hall and makes city officials’ jobs more difficult.