Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour delivered familiar news about a cash-strapped city in his 2010 State of the City speech Wednesday, but also gave his audience a genuine surprise -- announcing that Mike Harden is the city's new police chief.
The news that Harden, the acting chief, was appointed to head the department got the biggest reaction from the crowd of about 320 that packed a conference room at the DoubleTree Hotel to hear the mayor's speech.
The Modesto Chamber of Commerce hosted the event, which was originally limited to an audience of $40 ticket holders. After a public outcry, the chamber set up free seats and about 10 people took advantage of the opportunity.
The mayor gave his audience a blunt assessment of the financial challenges that continue to plague Modesto. The city probably will have to make $8 million in cuts this year from its $106 million general fund, the money that pays for essential services such as police, fire and parks, Ridenour said.
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Modesto is burdened by growing employee wage and benefit costs that eat up 75 percent of the general fund, costs that aren't "financially feasible" over the long haul, Ridenour said. With continued declines in prop- erty and sales tax revenues, Ridenour diagnosed Modesto's fiscal condition as "stable, but not healthy."
The speech was billed as Ridenour's outreach to the business community and an effort to promote job growth. But the mayor unveiled no new strategies to reverse the area's dismal unemployment trend.
Instead, he recapped several efforts already in prog- ress that could inch the city toward economic recovery. Among them:
Spending $25 million in federal stimulus money on buying and rehabbing foreclosed houses. Some of the money will go toward purchasing up to 175 foreclosed or vacant houses; some of it will be used to provide housing for underserved populations such as the mentally ill, people with substance abuse problems, young people who have gotten too old for foster care and others who struggle to find housing.
Spending $3.3 million in federal stimulus money this summer to resurface parts of the city's busiest streets, including Oakdale Road, Orangeburg Avenue and Sisk Road. The city also will spend $3.2 million in federal stimulus money to apply a thin surface treatment to 25 miles of streets citywide.
Analyzing city fees. With an eye toward easing the burden on businesses who want to set up shop in Modesto, Ridenour said the city has set up a task force to look at all the fees the city charges businesses. The panel could recommend lowering some of those fees but, Ridenour noted, the ultimate decision rests with him and the rest of the City Council.
Pressing ahead with long-term growth planning. Ridenour described ongoing efforts to update the city's general plan, the document that guides Modesto's future development. The City Council this year will look at changes to some land-use restrictions in the general plan to promote commercial development over residential.
"Although nothing we can do today will bring immediate investment to the city, I don't see that as a reason to hold off planning for the future and being better prepared when the economy does rebound," Ridenour said.