Tax increase proposed for fire and police

Long-discussed tax increases to fix Modesto's storm drains and boost its public safety ranks could go to voters by 2009 because of the city's budget troubles.

They're among several budget-balancing proposals going to the Modesto City Council's Finance Committee tonight for an early look at how to handle looming financial challenges.

One option centers on asking voters for a half-cent sales tax increase to support the police and fire departments, both of which are leaving positions vacant because of the city's budget crunch.

The tax would raise about $16 million a year for public safety, including certain after-school programs organized by the city's Parks, Recreation and Neighborhoods Department. Modesto budgeted $87.3 million for the police and fire departments this year.

A report summarizing the tax proposal acknowledges that it could face a difficult path in the next year because of an expected November ballot measure that would raise the county's sales tax to pay for road improvements.

Voters in nearby cities have supported public safety sales tax increases recently. Manteca passed one in 2006, and Ceres adopted one a year later. They required a two-thirds majority to succeed.

Merced voters passed a general sales tax increase in 2005, partly to hire more police officers and firefighters. That measure required a simple majority of 50 percent plus one.

The suggested storm drain increase, meanwhile, would show up on utility bills along with fees for sewer, water and garbage. Residents pay $3.23 a month for the drain system, a fee that last increased in 1992. Businesses pay a higher fee.

Raising the fee would require a simple majority to pass. Officials have not said how much the proposed increase would be.

Modesto's financial year ends June 30. The council usually holds hearings on budget plans in May and passes them in June.

Other budget issues going to the Finance Committee tonight include:

A possible increase in the money that Modesto pays to support the Stanislaus County animal shelter. The county wants the city to contribute about $400,000 a year toward the construction of a new shelter. The city currently pays the county $370,000 a year for shelter services.

Cutting the city's payroll by creating a voluntary, unpaid furlough program, instituting early retirement incentives and considering mandatory reductions in the city's work week

Reviewing charges for business licenses, possibly by creating a new fee or by checking for companies that don't have legitimate licenses.

The Finance Committee will meet at 5:30 p.m. in Room 2005 at Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.