Cloud over Modesto has silver lining

For once, Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour doesn't mind seeing Modesto get dissed on a critical list, like Forbes' "Most Miserable Cities."

Well, not as much as he used to, anyway.

That's because the same criteria that land Modesto a perennial spot on those irritating civic compilations are the ones that are getting the city millions of dollars in federal stimulus money.

The city stands to gain a minimum of $13 million from the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It's preparing applications for millions more that could bring in cash for cops, streets and utilities.

"After all these things go through, I'm going to get mad and say, 'That's not true again,' " if Modesto continues to get unwanted attention from those magazine lists, he said.

Extra money from Washington -- the $13 million from the stimulus program and $8.2 million from a foreclosure program created under the Bush administration -- somewhat softens the impacts of Modesto's shrinking tax base.

The city faces severe budget cuts as it heads into its next financial year beginning July 1. It must cut $2 million to balance the books for this budget year and $12 million to $15 million to keep next year's balanced.

It's not clear whether the stimulus will save jobs in City Hall. Modesto likely will trim more than 100 positions from its work force of about 1,200 through layoffs and buyouts because of an extended drop in tax revenue.

Police force likely to benefit

The biggest help likely would go to the Police Department. Modesto has applied for grants to fund more than 40 positions, some of which represent new jobs and others that would retain police who might lose their jobs because of budget cuts.

Modesto's application for that grant is due April 14. The city likely will find out if its law enforcement request succeeds as it finishes planning next year's budget in June.

"Until I see it in the door and in the bank, that's when I'll believe in all of this," Ridenour said.

Some grants could require high-level management, such as programs that run through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Most of the money is intended to get into the community as quickly as possible through city contracts.

Of the initial $13 million:

$5.58 million would fund bus routes that otherwise would be cut

$3.24 million is earmarked for road repairs that would extend the usefulness of pavement

$1.95 million is for an energy efficiency program that is still being developed

$966,000 would fund homelessness prevention programs, such as putting money into the city's emergency shelter or buying foreclosed homes

$669,000 is to fund a share of a three-county narcotics task force

$636,000 contributes to a HUD program that offers people low-interest loans to rehabilitate houses

Modesto City Manager Greg Nyhoff has designated several city employees to track opportunities for more stimulus cash. They intend to report to the City Council regularly on their efforts.

"We're going to take the greatest advantage for this community," he said.

The city is preparing more than $200 million in requests for capital projects including sewer and water upgrades, road repairs, bike lanes and sidewalk crossings.

It's not clear whether state officials holding the strings on that cash will favor the city's requests. The projects could fall into categories marked for specific purposes, such as transit and repairing aging public resources.

"Aim high," said city parks and recreation director Jim Niskanen, who is overseeing the stimulus requests for the city.

Modesto's unemployment rate is approaching 17 percent, and the city has been at the epicenter of the nationwide foreclosure crisis.

"This money was intended to help communities hit by the recession," Niskanen said. "Right now, it's hard to find a community that's been hit harder by the recession than Modesto."

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at or 578-2366.

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