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Modesto to weigh tough cuts tonight

Modesto's been driving in circles for years looking for ways to pay expensive overtime wages police officers rack up when they patrol the downtown club scene on weekend nights.

That debate has to halt by the end of June, or the city would have to make up about $300,000 in red ink with unattractive options, such as laying off employees.

"That's three officers," Councilwoman Kristin Olsen said, referring to the roughly $100,000 a year the city would pay in base salary and benefits to an officer.

Modesto has reduced its overtime expenses by close to $200,000 since it spent $497,520 in the 2007-08 budget year.

That progress isn't enough because of the city's worsening financial condition. The City Council tonight is scheduled to consider $8.9 million in budget cuts with millions of dollars in more reductions likely on the way.

Some choices to offset downtown police overtime are taking shape, although city leaders are finding it difficult to reach a consensus on a plan that would provide immediate relief to Modesto's budget.

Cash from parking garages likely will make up at least part of the gap, according to a discussion Monday night at a City Council Safety and Communities committee meeting.

It's not clear whether the city would redirect money it brings in from the garages or if it would raise fees for people who visit downtown after 10 p.m. Modesto collects about $200,000 a year in parking fees from 10 p.m. to 3:30 a.m.

The city until the summer of 2007 steered a portion of late-night parking garage revenue to the Police Department on the assumption that people wouldn't go downtown after hours if not for the lure of clubs and restaurants.

The city chose to dedicate all of that revenue to parking maintenance with plans to pay for an automated parking system. That project is expected to be on line within three months, and it could free cash for law enforcement.

Business concerns

Business owners don't want to see parking fees increase, fearing they could deter customers from coming downtown.

"It's going to push people out of the garage and onto the street," denying the city parking revenue it collects today, said Chris Ricci, general manager of the Fat Cat club on 11th Street.

Councilman Brad Hawn is expected to meet with restaurant and club owners to find a compromise in the next two weeks. Their recommendation is scheduled to appear at a budget meeting June 18.

Councilman Will O'Bryant wants to investigate more choices, such as requiring bars and clubs to charge a cover fee for city services.

One long-term option on the table would be having downtown bars and clubs pay the Police Department directly to offset the costs of assigning officers there in the late hours on weekends.

Pursuing that course could take time because it has the potential to create the appearance of a conflict of interest.

"I'm concerned that an officer would become beholden to a particular club," interim Police Chief Mike Harden said.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at or 578-2366.

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