Jeff Jardine

Jardine: Star-spangled snafu in step with Modesto’s financial fumbles

Mayor Ted Brandvold has promised he’ll fine-tooth-comb the Modesto city budget during his first 100 days in office, looking for money that can be better spent hiring more police officers and firefighters.
Mayor Ted Brandvold has promised he’ll fine-tooth-comb the Modesto city budget during his first 100 days in office, looking for money that can be better spent hiring more police officers and firefighters. aalfaro@modbee.com

A simple request by a Navy veteran living on Modesto’s west side cuts right to the core of why the city failed twice to pass a general tax pitched to put more cops and firefighters on the streets:

The city lacks credibility when it comes to managing some of its finances.

Bee reporter Kevin Valine last week wrote about resident George Russell’s plea to the city to repair a vandalized and long flagless flagpole at the King-Kennedy Memorial Center. Russell said in essence that if the council can earmark $75,000 for hotel rooms and team meals for the Amgen Tour of California cycling crews passing through but not riding through Modesto one day in May, they can fix a doggone flagpole.

Russell is right. The flagpole represents a long-term fix for relative chump change – a few thousand bucks maybe? It is supposed to proudly display the Stars and Stripes. There is absolutely nothing wrong with expecting the city to display Old Glory on the west side of town with the same grace, dignity and pride that it does downtown at Tenth Street Place. Russell told The Bee that he began asking for repairs nearly three years ago, and got the brush-off from parks and recreation officials, though all have since left the city.

The Amgen gig, meanwhile, represents a one-night stand with no guarantee of a future prom date, let alone a promise ring. Maybe the race will come back here someday; maybe it won’t. Fine if it does, but it isn’t the kind of thing Modesto should fret if it doesn’t. If the race never returns, that shouldn’t define the city. Spending $75,000 for an Amgen slumber party suggests those on the council who voted for it – including former Mayor Garrad Marsh – didn’t get it.

What this all comes down to – and what new Mayor Ted Brandvold promises to fix – is that the council and the city staff need to build some street cred on the financial and customer service fronts. Customer service, though, is a misnomer when it comes to dealing with government. It really is taxpayer service. The taxpayers, in theory at least, are their bosses, and those who exercise their voting rights more so than the rest. Two of the four council newcomers – Brandvold and Mani Grewal – won their seats by beating incumbents, reflecting voter discontent with the status quo.

One council rookie, Kristi Ah You, found herself getting extremely frustrated listening to Russell detail his prolonged struggle to get city staff to respond to the flagpole fix. The King-Kennedy Memorial Center is in her district. She, along with Bill Zoslocki and Grewal, opposed the Amgen gift envelope when the council approved it by a 4-3 vote last month.

“I don’t want to see my tax dollars wasted,” she said. “I want to see a return on our investment. We can get a phone call from Amgen and how many days later can we drop $75,000, but this vet can’t get a flagpole repaired in 2 1/2 years?”

She also said the city shouldn’t have spent $10,900 on a consultant to conduct a several-hours-long strategic planning session 11 days ago. City Manager Jim Holgersson and other top managers should have been able to lead it themselves.

“We pay the city managers and two (deputy city) managers more than a half-million dollars a year (combined), and they can’t lead a four-hour meeting?” Ah You said.

The two sales tax measures – X in 2013 and G last year – failed in no small part because people didn’t trust the city to use the money primarily on public safety positions as pitched. In between, the city lost $78,000 staging the grand prix go-kart race downtown in August 2014, plus $8,000 in total payouts to two restaurants filing claims for sales lost during the event. Additionally, police overtime costs surpassed $29,000.

Brandvold promises he’ll fine-tooth-comb the budget during his first 100 days, looking for money that can be better spent hiring more officers and firefighters. He’ll seek input from the public. He won’t push for a sales tax. The city’s been there, done that and has much work to do toward repairing its street cred.

But I do suspect his line-by-line slicing and dicing will produce enough spare change to fix west Modesto’s flagless pole and restore the Stars and Stripes in all its Old Glory.

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