Kevin Valine

Modesto heading into unpredictable budget hearings

The city’s budget hearings are scheduled for next week, and they could be lively.

That’s because the seven-member City Council has four new members since the November election. They have been asking staff a lot of questions, and questioned the assumptions underlying how the city operates. The other reason is new Mayor Ted Brandvold’s 100-day budget review committee.

Committee members held their first meeting April 1 and have been meeting frequently since then, in sometimes marathon sessions with city staff, reviewing the city’s current budget and finances. Committee Chairman Chuck Bryant said he plans on attending the hearings and has invited other committee members.

The hearings will focus on Modesto’s proposed 2016-17 budget, which starts July 1. City officials expect to release the budget this week. City Manager Jim Holgersson said the public should expect a budget that essentially maintains the same levels of city services.

Holgersson reiterated a concern he and other city officials have been raising recently: Modesto’s sales tax revenues are trending below projections. The city has pointed to lower gasoline prices, more people shopping online and in neighboring cities as the culprits.

Sales taxes are the biggest revenue source for the city’s roughly $115 million general fund, which makes up roughly a third of the city’s operating budget and primarily pays for public safety.

One thing to watch during the budget hearings is how good of a job city officials do making their presentations. One of Modesto’s shortcomings is that too frequently officials make presentations that raise more questions than they answer or are not clear. That issue has come up during some of the meetings of the 100-day committee and its subcommittees.

The council’s Effective Government Committee will hold the budget hearings in the basement chambers of Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St. The hearings are open to the public.

The first hearing is Monday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and will include presentations from the police and fire departments, public works and utilities. Tuesday’s hearing also is from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and will include presentations from the rest of the city’s departments. The committee is expected to come up with its recommendations to the council at Wednesday’s meeting, which is scheduled from 9 a.m. to noon. The committee could meet Thursday if needed.

The 100-day budget review committee is expected to report and make recommendations to the council in June. The council will adopt the budget ahead of the July 1 start of the city’s new fiscal year.

In other city news:

I was wrong in my column last week when I wrote Modesto was considering water rate increases of as much as 63 percent over five years. The proposed increases could be as much as about 80 percent.

The city is looking at increases of 25 percent in the first year, followed by 11 percent in the second and then three annual increases of 9 percent each. That adds up to 63 percent. But what I needed to do was compound the annual increases. When you do that, the proposed increases are about 80 percent.

The typical residential customer now pays $41.77 per month for water and would see that monthly bill increase to about $75 over the five years. This is the worst-case scenario Modesto is considering for the rate increases. The city is fine-tuning the increases and they could be less. But they still would be significant.

The council is expected to start the process to raise rates in June, with the increases taking effect in September if the council approves them.

Kevin Valine: 209-578-2316