State

Modesto slices $9M, from parks to fire to planning

The Modesto City Council on Tuesday adopted nearly $9 million in painful budget cuts, but got a reassuring sign that some residents want to volunteer to make up the gap in small ways.

The spending cuts hit every department — from closing park restrooms to shutting down a firetruck to slashing 25 percent of spending from the department that oversees economic development and planning.

Council members described those decisions as virtually inevitable because of a prolonged drop in tax revenue.

The city expects to collect about $106 million for its general fund over the next year, $15 million less than it budgeted last year. The general fund pays for services that are not tied to utility or use fees, such as law enforcement and parks.

Modesto's economic outlook could get even worse if the state follows through on plans to borrow cash from local governments, or if city leaders fail to persuade public employee unions to accept a package of labor concessions valued at $4.8 million.

"We've got so much we have to cut that we're looking at things like that none of us want to do," Councilman Brad Hawn said. "We're picking and choosing things that would provide the least heartache to the community."

A $2.1 million hit to the city's Parks, Recreation and Neighborhoods Department drew the most attention from residents.

Several spoke up to protest an item that saves $174,400 by closing most park restrooms on weekdays.

"We have a very high percentage of people that use these restrooms that have no alternative," said Robert Stanford, a neighborhood activist who plans to run for a council seat this fall.

Mayor Jim Ridenour replied that money is so tight for the city that residents would have to suggest alternate cuts to protect their favorite services. Ridenour said he welcomed suggestions.

"We only have so much money and we have a $15 million cut we have to do between now and July 1," he said, referring to the start of the budget year.

Dan Stanley, a representative from a Modesto teen baseball league, said park maintenance was so important to his organization that he and others in his group would volunteer to keep up fields at Davis Park. Babe Ruth League teams practice there regularly.

"We will drag it. We will fertilize it. We will even mow it if we have to," he said. "It's that important to us."

Modesto has a flexible program to work with park sponsors. Acting Parks Director Julie Hannon said she's eager to see more suggestions like Stanley's.

"Anything we can do to help with the parks is really what we'd like to get done," she said.

More budget cuts are expected to come together June 16, when Ridenour plans to present spending reductions that the city would use if unions reject proposed labor concessions. The next round of cuts could include closing a fire station and another round of layoffs in City Hall.

Modesto is asking unions to accept the equivalent of 12 unpaid furlough days over the next year, about 5 percent of their income. About 40 city executives and attorneys have accepted that concession.

Modesto recently got some good news to smooth out some of its budget cuts. It received a $3 million insurance payout to compensate for the loss of John Muir Elementary School, a defunct site on East Morris Avenue that burned in 2007.

That money is being used to pay into an employee benefit fund that had been neglected, to boost the city's reserves and to trim the amount of concessions the city sought from labor groups. Ridenour initially wanted $5.8 million in union concessions.

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

    
Council Watch

The Modesto City Council on Tuesday unanimously voted to:

  • Release $3.2 million in redevelopment funds to advance a 150-unit affordable housing project on Ninth Street. The Modesto Redevelopment Agency has set aside $6.7 million for the project, which is being built by EAH, a San Rafael nonprofit group. EAH is moving quickly on the paperwork because it's trying to apply for tax breaks with quickly approaching deadlines.
  • Reject a scheduled increase in the cost of building permits that was intended to reflect the price of inflation. The price of a building permit for a single-family home would have risen to $23,187 from $21,670 if the council chose to adopt the increase. Resident Emerson Drake urged the council to go forward with the scheduled increase, contending that passing on it would make it difficult for the city to institute a higher fee when the economy rebounds. Council members said city building fees altogether approach $80,000 -- the cost of some homes on the market today.
  • Require top-level managers and attorneys to take 96 hours of unpaid furlough time in the 2009-10 budget year. This group of roughly
  • 40 employees would be prohibited from cashing out management leave at the end of this year. Typically, managers are allowed to cash out a portion of that benefit each December. The city can impose these changes on this group of employees, but it would have to bargain for them if it wants the same concessions from its unions.
  • Reject bids for repairs to a traffic operations building on Elm Street. The building has leaks and ventilation problems. Repairs would cost about $240,000. The city is delaying the project to use the money in other ways, such as street repairs.
  • The council met in closed session to discuss labor negotiations and a potential settlement in a lawsuit a Stockton woman filed against the city alleging she was roughed up when she was arrested at a 10th Street bar in 2007. Margaret Shepherd claimed that police broke her ribs when they arrested her. The city countered that officers used justifiable force in the arrest.
  • —Adam Ashton
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