Mayor Garrad Marsh called Thursday for putting a tax increase on the November ballot to hire more police officers, keep all 11 of Modesto’s fire stations open and address other pressing needs.
He asked for the increase during his annual State of the City address before about 300 people at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the DoubleTree Hotel.
“I love our city,” Marsh said, “but I know we are not all we can be. Without greater revenues, Modesto will not be as safe as you deserve, will not address gangs and drugs, child abuse, family conflicts, homelessness and vagrancy, and petty crime.
“ ... I ask you to encourage your (City) Council to again propose a revenue measure for this November’s ballot. Modesto has transitioned in so many ways; it is time to transition away from deficiencies in our public safety, our parks, our support of neighborhood groups and our lack of jobs.”
Marsh’s push for a sales tax increase comes about 15 months after Modesto voters rejected Measure X, the 1 percent general sales tax increase the city put on the November 2013 ballot. The measure needed a simple majority to pass but received 49 percent of the vote.
Marsh said in an interview after his speech that Modesto overreached with Measure X, asking voters to approve too big a tax increase that focused on too many areas. He said he now favors a 1/2 percent general sales tax focused on public safety and economic development for a term of eight years. The proposed tax also would need a simple majority to pass.
Modesto’s sales tax rate is 7.625 percent. The proposed increase would raise it to 8.125 percent.
Marsh said support for the tax must come from the community. He said he has spoken with about 10 community groups since December about the proposed increase and the response has been positive.
The City Council would have to put the tax increase on the ballot.
The Bee polled council members after the mayor’s speech. Councilman John Gunderson said he supports a tax increase, while Councilwoman Jenny Kenoyer and Councilman Bill Zoslocki said they need more information before making a decision.
Councilman Dave Cogdill Jr. said he opposes tax increases but is not opposed to putting a tax proposal on the ballot and letting voters decide. Councilman Tony Madrigal also supports letting voters decide. He added: “I do applaud the mayor’s leadership and courage to approach the voters a second time after we have made the necessary cuts to demonstrate we can live within our means as a city.”
Councilman Dave Lopez said he does not believe a tax increase is needed, because the economy is getting stronger and Modesto recently approved pay raises and bonuses for police officers to reduce the number of officers leaving for jobs with better-paying agencies.
The council recently approved pay increases for five of the city’s six labor groups, which eventually will cost Modesto about $4.5 million annually. Officials have said the increases were needed because the city’s compensation was not competitive and Modesto’s civilian employees had not seen their pay increase in several years and even saw it fall in the past couple of years when they started paying more for their pensions.
The proposed tax increase comes as Modesto, Stanislaus County and its eight other cities consider putting a countywide transportation tax on the November 2016 ballot. The tax would pay for roads and possibly extending Altamont Corridor Express commuter trains into Stanislaus County, with stations in Modesto and Turlock.
Some believe a city tax increase could jeopardize the chance of voters approving a transportation tax. Marsh said he does not think so. “We need both local revenues and road revenues,” he said.
Modesto went through several years of budget cuts during the Great Recession, resulting in fewer police officers and firefighters, less maintenance of its parks and roads, and other reductions.
Marsh called for the tax increase near the end of his speech. Before asking for it, he laid out his case for how Modesto has put its financial house in order and taken other positive steps, including forging better relationships with its neighborhoods, local businesses and governments.
For instance, he said, the city’s current $107 million general fund budget is the first since at least 2000 that is truly balanced, with ongoing revenues matching ongoing expenses. In recent years, the city had balanced its general fund by making budget cuts, using reserves and borrowing from other accounts.
He said while the city’s finances are manageable and it can balance its budget, Modesto does not have the money to increase public safety and address other needs.
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2316.