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Budget-cutting process begins

Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour is calling for budget cuts in every service the city provides, from keeping parks green to maintaining a fully staffed Fire Department.

He's proposing $8.9 million in spending reductions this week while seeking an additional $5.9 million in concessions from labor groups to balance the city budget that begins July 1.

The proposal calls for the city to spend $107.4 million from its general fund, a $15 million decrease from the current budget.

His plan marks the third consecutive year of budget cuts in City Hall, reflecting a prolonged downturn in tax revenue that has Modesto slashing its payroll by about 100 positions over the next few months. Forty of those slots are held by managers.

"You're going to see a new government," Ridenour said, describing the budget crunch as a transformative one for Modesto. "Government's going to be smaller, but when we're done, we're going to be a lot better."

City Council members are scheduled to discuss Ridenour's plan at a series of meetings this week. The council usually adopts the budget in the first week of June.

The Community and Economic Development Department, which oversees planning and building services, is taking the biggest hit in the mayor's budget. It's expected to lose 25 percent of its budget, bringing its budget to $5.3 million.

"These are tough times and dramatic steps have to be taken to address the situation," said Brent Sinclair, the Community and Economic Development director.

Sinclair must lay off employees for the first time in his career. His department has to trim 19 positions, six through early retirements and 13 through layoffs.

Residents might not notice the cutbacks in Sinclair's department unless they have a reason to call for a building inspection or need to rezone property.

Other cuts, however, likely will appear obvious to people who use city parks.

The city aims to save $360,000 by scaling back on parks maintenance and watering its fields less frequently.

Other cuts within a $1.6 million reduction in parks spending include closing public rest- rooms to save $174,000, saving more than $200,000 by not opening public pools this summer and trimming the city's contribution to a program that subsidizes athletic teams for kids by $30,000.

"You'll see it," City Manager Greg Nyhoff said. "People will actually visibly see the cutbacks."

Modesto's Police and Fire departments stand to lose a smaller percentage of their budgets, but the depth of the cuts mean their ranks will shrink.

"Are parks vital? In my opinion, yes," Ridenour said. "On the other hand, it's more important that we have fire and police."

Ridenour is asking to eliminate a fire rescue truck and to continue shutting down one downtown engine when firefighters call in sick rather than use overtime to keep the engine running. Those two choices would save nearly $1.5 million.

They also allow the city to leave vacant nine positions held by firefighters who accepted an early retirement offer.

"We're talking about having 133 firemen for a town of over 200,000," said Cecil Ridge, president of the Modesto City Firefighters Association. "These are numbers we had in the 1980s. We're stretched."

Ridge said his union is at the table with Nyhoff looking for more ways to save money. He said some of the veterans who took the retirement package did so to prevent younger firefighters from being laid off.

Ridenour's budget cuts $2.1 million from the Police Department, but does so without reducing the number of sworn officers. Five people in support positions could face layoffs, said Art Miller, president of the Modesto Police Non-Sworn Association.

Tony Arguelles, president of the Modesto Police Officers Association, anticipates being asked to renegotiate a contract that took effect in the winter. The city has asked his union for an additional $820,000 in cuts beyond the ones outlined in Ridenour's budget.

"It's tough to receive that information when it comes to public safety," he said. "We're at 10 homicides this year. We have enough business to go around."

Council members will have an opportunity to suggest alternate cuts this week. Nyhoff plans to ask for several structural changes, such as creating a budget director who would answer directly to him and to separate long-term planning in the Public Works Department from day-to-day operations.

Those positions could open after he closes the city's early retirement program this week.

The City Council invites public comment about the budget proposal at a meeting scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in the basement chamber of Tenth Street Place, 1010 Tenth St.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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