Jeff Jardine

Apathetic folks share blame when they don’t pay attention to public agencies

There’s never a bad time to pay attention to what public officials, elected or otherwise, are doing. A couple of stories in The Modesto Bee over the past few days offer stark reminders.

Reporter Garth Stapley last weekend explained how lopsided Oakdale Irrigation District representation remains because district officials ignored a voting law that demanded compliance years ago. He pointed to the disparity among the number of people in each of OID’s five districts, including how board member Frank Clark represents nearly twice as many people and three times the voters in District 1 than Al Bairos represents in District 4.

And reporter Kevin Valine, who covers Modesto government, wrote last week about the city’s plans to revisit a general fund tax to pay for more police officers and firefighters. We’ll get to that momentarily.

First, OID’s failure to readjust its voting district boundaries happened in no small part because a majority of people within the city of Oakdale don’t see themselves as part of the district and therefore constituents. They neither pay attention to nor demand anything from the district. After all, OID is of the farmers, by the farmers and for the farmers, right?

Not quite. For decades, many of the older homes within the city received water from OID for their lawns through an old “gardenhead” delivery system. The district ended the delivery a decade ago. Today, OID provides no water or service to property owners in housing and business developments within the city. Yet through property taxes paid this year, owners within the city collectively handed the irrigation district nearly $992,000 for nothing. City dwellers pay the city directly and separately for water and sewer services.

If getting nothing for something isn’t a good reason to pay heed to what a special district is doing – and what their representatives are not doing for them – then what is?

Meanwhile, Modesto city officials in November 2013 asked voters to pass a temporary 1 percent general fund sales tax to put more police officers on the streets and more firefighters in the stations. They chose not to propose a designated tax guaranteeing the revenue be spent to hire more public safety workers. A designated tax requires a 66.7 percent voter approval. Those are a tougher sell, period.

So they opted for a general fund tax that required a simple majority, meaning one vote more than 50 percent to pass.

As I’ve written before, these kinds of measures are flawed because they don’t reward for constraint. I’d prefer the simple majority to pass a designated tax and the two-thirds for the general fund tax because it would, in theory at least, mandate how the money is used as compared with the cookie-jar general fund approach.

Had it passed, the tax would have generated $26 million a year over a six-year term, or $156 million. Instead, it failed even at the lower threshold. Why? Because while they promoted it as a public safety tax, they were fuzzy when it came to specifics and that left the opening for opponents to hammer away. Voters were suspicious, and it showed. It came down to trust, and the taxpayers didn’t trust city officials without the strings attached.

Now, Mayor Garrad Marsh wants to try again. The city’s property crime rate in particular is rising, and that can impact virtually everyone in the community. The police and fire departments can make strong cases for needing more personnel. The measure’s proponents again will opt for a general fund tax because of the simple majority threshold for passage.

But somewhere along the way, they need to state in absolute and ironclad terms how much of the revenue will go to public safety – how many officers and firefighters will be hired – and be able to justify every dime collected beyond what funds the additional public safety personnel. It appears they learned something from the last attempt. This time, the ballot measure would first ask voters to approve the tax, followed by a second box to check if they want 100 percent of the revenue spent on the Safer Neighborhood Initiative, with most of that going to police and fire.

They’ll discuss creating an oversight committee not unlike what agencies do to monitor the spending of bond money.

They need to be totally transparent this time to have a chance. At the same time, voters need to look seriously at the measure and not just dismiss it because it’s a new tax.

If there’s any wiggle room or lack of commitment about how it will be spent, the same voters who nixed it last time will nix it again. Because if the trend holds, a small percent of voters will make the decision for the rest who don’t care when they really do have a stake in what their public and elected officials are doing.

Pay attention and demand accountability. There’s never a bad time, and it’s never a bad idea.