Modesto officials are lining up behind a proposed ballot measure that would keep sticky state fingers out of municipal pockets.
The measure is meant to solve a problem that's bedeviled cash-strapped cities during the recession: The state can "borrow" tax money — including property taxes and gas taxes — that's supposed to go to cities and counties.
The state says it needs the money to balance its budget; cities and counties say the raids on local tax dollars drain their general funds and cripple their ability to provide services.
The state's borrowing of property taxes cost local governments $2 billion this year, with Modesto taking a $2.75 million hit, say ballot measure supporters.
The ballot measure would amend the state constitution to put a stop to the borrowing. Organizers, led by the League of California Cities, need to gather 1.1 million signatures by mid-April to get the measure before voters in November.
Among the signature hunters is Mayor Jim Ridenour, a vice president of the League of California Cities. Ridenour has collected almost 100 signatures. He's also been instrumental in helping the league build coalitions to support the measure, said Stephen Qualls, a Central Valley representative for the league.
The City Council recently passed a resolution backing the measure.
Ridenour said the ballot measure would force the state to make the same tough decisions that have vexed city and county leaders, who don't have the option of borrowing from other government entities.
"If we don't do something, they have a right in the constitution to take everything," Ridenour said. "It's time for them to make some hard decisions. We don't like laying people off, we don't like stopping services, but we've got to prioritize and the state needs to do the same thing."
State gets around earlier vote
This isn't the first time the League of California Cities has asked for help from voters. In 2004 and 2006, voters passed ballot measures to prevent such borrowing. But loopholes in those measures allow the state to take local money when there's a fiscal emergency. The state exercised that option to borrow cities' property tax dollars last year. It's supposed to pay back the money in three years, with interest.
Redevelopment agencies have been hard hit also. Last year Modesto's redevelopment agency sued to stop the state from taking $414,000. This year, the agency is facing another court battle to block the state from taking $2,015,341. If the state prevails, the agency would halt work on projects such as the Kansas Avenue business park.
"It really stops our ability to do much of anything," said Brent Sinclair, Modesto's Community and Economic Development director. "We're not able to go out and purchase property, go out and build infrastructure, or do the things that redevelopment agencies do."
Organizers say polls show that voters are fed up enough with state borrowing to pass the measure. "Right now there are very high numbers showing that people are very dissatisfied with state government," Qualls said. "They don't like it that the state is taking money and using it for other purposes that it's not intended for."
Read more about the proposed ballot measure at www.savelocalservices.com.