City ponders more cuts, from pools to firetrucks

The bad news is that a three-year drop in tax revenue has Modesto officials considering budget cuts that once were regarded as unthinkable.

The worse news is that the city's economic outlook could continue to darken, compelling more unpalatable choices.

"I thought we were bare bones two years ago. Now we're talking about putting dirt in the pools," Councilman Brad Hawn said in describing a plan to close all but one of Modesto's public outdoor pools.

Hawn was one of three council members weighing Mayor Jim Ridenour's proposed budget reductions at a hearing Monday. The pool at Graceada Park would remain open in the proposal they discussed.

They didn't have to look far ahead to see more cuts beyond the $8.9 million in spending reductions Ridenour detailed.

Gov. Schwarzenegger last week said California likely would borrow from cities and counties to balance its budget if voters today reject a slate of ballot measures intended to shore up the state's books.

His plan likely would cost Modesto an additional $3.4 million.

Beyond that, Ridenour's proposal counts on city labor groups agreeing to $5.9 million in unspecified concessions.

City Manager Greg Nyhoff gave more details about how an early retirement and layoff program would play out. The city intends to eliminate 76 filled positions, saving $3.8 million. Forty-nine of those spots belong to supervisors and managers.

More cuts in public safety would require the Fire Department to shut one of its 10 neighborhood fire stations. Under Ridenour's plan, the department would eliminate a rescue truck and a downtown engine but would keep open the stations.

The Fire Department prefers to staff all stations so residents have a fire engine nearby.

"We get one engine there and we can start to make a difference," Fire Chief Jim Miguel said.

Modesto's Community and Economic Development Department is losing 19 of its 72 employees to early retirement and layoffs. Some of its budget is tied to building revenue, which has declined to $1.6 million this budget year from $3.3 million in 2005.

"I've stopped saying this is the absolute lowest we can go," said Brent Sinclair, the city's Community and Economic Development director. "Every time I've said that, I've been wrong."

Some of the unsavory budget cuts going forward include closing public restrooms, reducing funding for a program that subsidizes recreational programs for kids and leaving police positions vacant. Modesto could seek private sponsors for some of the programs, such as keeping open a pool.

Councilwoman Kristin Olsen highlighted three officers' positions she'd like to fill, including those in the gang and traffic units. But the city's budget has less wiggle room for alternate cuts than it has the past two years.

"Our top two priorities have to be public safety and job growth, now more than ever," Olsen said.

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