Laid-off police officers, unmowed parks, closed libraries.
Those are the visible reminders of government's new, stripped-down reality. Some say there's no end in sight.
While the private sector talks about glimmers of recovery, the conversation at city halls and county buildings across the Northern San Joaquin Valley isn't about when things will improve. It's about how government has to redefine itself.
Leaders aren't wondering how to provide services, they're wondering if they should provide them at all.
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A look at Modesto's general fund — the money that pays for basic services such as police, fire and parks — illustrates the problem. Ten years ago, the city collected $86.4 million for that fund. The real estate boom — and the property and sales tax revenues it created — boosted the fund to $118 million in 2006. This year, it fell to $102.6 million.
"To me, we need to rethink what's important to all of us, what's important to the welfare of the people," said Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour, listing police, fire, parks, sewer and water as necessities. "What I think is very, very important, to you may not mean a thing."
Some say public agencies must learn to make do under a state of "permanent fiscal stress."
That's what Frank Benest, former city manager of Palo Alto and an adviser to International City-County Management Association, calls it. He says the discussion for local governments has shifted from "creative budgeting" to "service redesign."
"A lot of people say, 'Let's reduce the cost of government.' That's all well and good until you get to the first budget hearing," Benest said. That's usually where leaders get an earful from taxpayers about how to make the best use of their money.
Here's a look at what the public can expect more of as cities re-imagine their roles.
Sharing or consolidating serv-ices with other cities. Need police? Ask the city next door. That's what Lathrop and Manteca are thinking about. Lathrop, which contracts with the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Department for its police services, is looking at whether it should hire Manteca, its nearest neighbor roughly five miles to the southeast, for its law enforcement.
The two cities share sewer capacity and an animal shelter. Adding police to the list makes sense, says Manteca City Manager Steve Pinkerton. "Our crime issues are really Manteca-Lathrop, they're just not Manteca," he said.
Persuading the public to contract with another city or local government for public safety services can be tricky though, says Sam Olivito, executive director of the California Contract Cities Association. "In older cities, their community has had an identity with their police department, and there's a reluctance to move away from that," he said. "It's very sensitive and it cuts home very closely."
The downturn forced communities to swallow those worries. Now, Pinkerton says there's not a day that goes by when city managers and county leaders don't trade ideas about what else they can share and regionalize.
For small cities such as Oakdale, population 21,000, consolidation will be essential to long-term survival, says City Manager Steve Hallam. He envisions a future where Stanislaus County's nine cities share one or two chief building officials. All cities use the same building code, so why pay a person in each city to interpret it, reasons Hallam.
Local governments sharing services is a natural step for savings, Benest says.
"Your partners are local governments who you work with on an ongoing basis anyway," Benest said. "You have the same goals and outcomes. And you can get a whole variety of cost efficiencies."
Contracting for everything. In Chicago, it's the parking meters and garages. In Modesto, it's park maintenance. Cities are finding more and more services they can put out to bid to private vendors.
The practice relieves cities of a significant burden: paying for employee benefits and retirement costs.
Olivito, head of the California Contract Cities Association, says since the downturn, he's seen an uptick in inquiries from cities looking for tips on how to contract for services.
On the other hand, when cities pay someone else to do their work, they have to spend time making sure that work gets done. At worst, that can mean city employees following street sweepers with cameras to make sure they're removing dust as promised, Olivito says.
Modesto soon will have to do some version of that monitoring on its golf courses. The city's contractor, ValleyCrest, recently told the city it could shave $288,000 off its yearly maintenance contract. But the company wouldn't reveal how it will keep costs down without sacrificing quality. It will be up to city staff to decide whether ValleyCrest is keeping its promise.
Residents paying for services à la carte. Want to park your car at Palo Alto's city-run open space preserves? It could soon cost you. Receive medical care from a Tracy firefighter? Get ready to write a $300 check.
Charging people for city services as they use them is a growing trend. In Oakdale, the city recently started charging for emergency rescues, but only nonresidents have to pay the fee. "If you're an out-of-town resident and you flip your raft in the river, you'll get a bill," Hallam said.
Some complain that cities are nickel and diming the public. But others say such fees ensure that cities don't subsidize a service that only a few use.
Modesto resident Fred Phillips, 77, likes the idea. He says it irks him that the city spends money to maintain its airport, when, in his view, only pilots seem to benefit from the facility. "A small percentage of the population shouldn't be getting benefits if the larger majority of the population is doing without," Phillips said.
Private donations funding public programs. Three years ago, Modesto hired Andy Johnson, a parks and recreation employee charged with attracting private donations and corporate sponsors to support city programs.
Private donations have become a necessity for maintaining some city programs. A Modesto-funded league for disabled bowlers almost saw its season cut short because of the city budget crunch, but donors stepped in and saved the program.
Last year, Johnson stepped up his efforts. He started a campaign called "Invest with Modesto," which encourages donors to chip in $30 to pay for a child's swim lessons, or $1,000 to pay for a year of recreation for seniors. The city brings in about $200,000 a year in cash donations, and Johnson hopes to increase that haul.
"My long-term goal would be, if you go to a major chain where they say at the register, 'Would you like to donate a dollar to Children's Miracle Network?' I want them to say, 'Would you like to donate to parks and recreation?' " Johnson said.
Volunteers. When Modesto was hit with severe budget cuts, church groups and serv-ice clubs flooded the city with requests about what they could do to help. The response was the "silver lining" of the economic downturn, says Johnson.
But it was also a little overwhelming for city staff. To manage the influx of do- gooders, officials created three citywide cleanup events. The first, in March, was a success, with volunteers fanning out across the city to paint over graffiti, pull weeds and pick up trash. More than 2,000 people signed up, in part because Modesto offered participants a voucher for a ticket to Disneyland.
Some say volunteers are the future for cash-strapped cities. But they're not a cure-all, says city management consultant Benest. Volunteers require city staff to recruit, train and manage them.
"Anybody who suggests that we're going to solve all of our service problems by bringing in a bunch of volunteers, either they're ideologically driven or they're not aware of the complexities," he said.
Taxes. The elephant in the room at city budget discussions, raising taxes, is a solution to revenue woes that no one wants to talk about.
Modesto City Councilman Garrad Marsh says he once saw a study that showed Modesto could pay for a police and fire force to match the city's population growth if it charged every homeowner a $500 yearly tax. Although the public consistently lists public safety as its most important priority, Marsh says he can't imagine a scenario where people would be willing to pay that fee.
Modesto resident Lillian Gordon agrees. Robbers recently struck her garage, stealing her husband's new tools. She was disappointed that it took police three hours to send someone to take a report. But would she pay higher taxes to fund a faster response? No, says the 80-year-old retiree. "I don't feel that I should have to pay more. I figure the services should be coming to us. If a streetlight is out, they need to get it replaced for our safety."
Reaching out to residents. This one isn't about being touchy-feely, it's about redefining what the public expects from government.
As leaders face tough decisions on how to stretch scarce resources, they're seeking more input from the public. Some officials take their budget show on the road, presenting municipal spending plans to community groups. Others ask residents to weigh in on city Web sites where they can balance the city's books themselves.
Manteca's Pinkerton says his city is embarking on an effort he calls "community-based government." The city will solicit more input from residents about what they want. It also will ask the public to pitch in more by volunteering.
Pinkerton says government does business like an old-fashioned gas station, where everything was full service, and that has to change.
"It's a lot more expensive if you sit there and let somebody pump your gas," he said. "That's still the way government operates. We haven't gone into self-service yet. People are paying for a high level of service, and I think they'd be willing to do more themselves if they got some cost savings out of it."