Modesto sales tax measure survives legal challenge

Lady Justice statue is pictured in May 2015 in the lobby of the Stanislaus Superior Courthouse in Modesto.
Lady Justice statue is pictured in May 2015 in the lobby of the Stanislaus Superior Courthouse in Modesto.

Modesto appears to have prevailed in a legal challenge brought against it over Measure G, the city’s one-half percent sales tax increase that will appear on the November ballot.

Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Timothy W. Salter issued a tentative ruling Thursday denying the Stanislaus Taxpayers Association’s legal action against Measure G. The association claims the language for the measure and its impartial analysis is false and misleading and asks that it be changed.

Salter wrote that the association’s legal action was “untimely” based on the Elections Code and granting the association’s request would “substantially interfere with the printing” of materials for the November election.

Stanislaus County filed legal papers stating that granting the association’s request would prevent the county election office from meeting a critical printing deadline and harm its ability to conduct the election. But the association’s attorney states in a court filing that the request is timely and will not affect the conduct of the election.

Salter also wrote that the association has “not established, by clear and convincing proof, that the disputed ballot materials are false or misleading.”

City Attorney Adam Lindgren said judges generally do not reverse tentative rulings. He said the ruling “is a positive development for the city and the county.”

Salter issued his tentative ruling the day before lawyers for the association, city and county are scheduled to appear before him at 8:30 a.m. in Department 22. The ruling becomes final if no one appears in court to argue against it. But Stanislaus Taxpayers Association President Dave Thomas said the association and its attorney will be in court. Attorneys for the other side also will be there.

“We believe this is an issue of great importance to voters and citizens of Modesto,” Thomas said in an email, “and we believe the court will be interested to hear our arguments on the merits of our Petition. The City Council is trying to mislead voters with improper and politically loaded language on the ballot, seeking a yes vote on Measure G. The court and all residents of Modesto deserve to hear the City’s response to these charges. So we will see them in court tomorrow. The hearing is open to the public.”

The text of Measure G, called the Safer Neighborhoods Initiative, states: “To implement the Safer Neighborhoods Initiative by restoring police patrols, crime prevention, gang suppression and youth development efforts; removing tagging; reducing nuisance properties; strengthening fire/emergency services; increasing neighborhood collaboration; and to maintain other general city services, shall the City of Modesto enact a ½ percent general sales tax that cannot be taken by the State, expires in 8 years, and requires audits, citizen oversight board reports, and all funds be spent in Modesto?”

The association claims that because Measure G is a general tax, it can be spent on any general government purpose and the ballot language misleads voters into believing the measure is a special tax that will be spent on the Safer Neighborhoods Initiative. But attorneys for the city say in court documents that the ballot language clearly states Measure G will be spent primarily on public safety as well as other purposes.

Modesto officials have said that while the city’s revenues are increasing, they have not recovered to pre-recession levels. They also have said Modesto needs additional revenue to provide residents with essential services. For instance, the city has lost about a quarter of its police officers positions since about 2008.

Kevin Valine: 209-578-2316