Modesto's 'worst case' plan cuts jobs, services

As the city began a weeklong series of budget meetings Monday, department managers gave more details of what Modesto residents would lose in the proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The budget plan would cut 60 positions and reduce services in public safety, parks and recreation, and other city departments. Officials call it a "worst case" budget plan, because the severity of the cuts depends on whether employee unions agree to concessions to reduce personnel costs.

Police Chief Mike Harden told the city Finance Committee the police force would lose 28 filled positions, including eight police officers, 11 community services officers, two detectives, three supervisors and support staff.

The department would still have 234 sworn and nonsworn personnel, down from 287 three years ago.

Harden said he would reorganize the force to ensure ample staffing for patrols and investigations, but fewer officers would be assigned to special units dealing with gangs, narcotics, auto thefts and traffic enforcement.

The chief questioned whether a 12 percent drop in violent crimes and other high-profile offenses could be maintained with the smaller staff.

Response would be slower to nonemergency calls and officers might not respond to write reports on noninjury auto collisions, the chief said. In addition, the department would have to focus less on economic crimes and outreach programs such as National Night Out.

Not everyone agrees that law enforcement should take the deepest cuts. Modesto resident John Fusselman suggested the city close parks and eliminate planning services instead.

"Find some alternative to cutting your (law enforcement) expenses," he said, "so you don't take down the thin blue line that helps us sleep at night."

The Fire Department, which is faced with 10 layoffs, plans to nix one engine company.

Fire Chief James Miguel said it could continue to meet a six-minute response time goal, but the firefighting force would not have as much depth.

The department is exploring ways to work with other agencies, such as a possible arrangement with the Salida Fire Protection District for joint response in certain areas of northwest Modesto and Salida, he said.

The Parks, Recreation and Neighborhoods Department needs to cut the equivalent of 10¾ full-time positions for a savings of $1.2 million. And it can't be done without hurting programs, Director Julie Hannon said.

Activities on the chopping block include the Youth Commission, summer camps, tennis and adult softball. The Landmark Preservation Commission and the Culture Commission also would be affected. The break-even tennis and softball programs could be turned over to private operators, Hannon said.

Recreation centers would be open six hours a day instead of eight, and people would see fewer exhibits at the downtown historical museum and McHenry Mansion. Bike paths and the playing field at John Thurman Field would suffer from less maintenance.

If all the cuts are made, the city needs to find almost $2 million more in cost savings to balance the $103 million general fund budget.

Mayor Jim Ridenour said one alternative to making cuts is asking voters to approve taxes for services, such as public safety, although it's hard getting the required two-thirds approval.

"If we continue to lose money, we are going to have to look at ways to get more revenue," the mayor said.

More budget discussions are scheduled before the city Finance Committee at 9 a.m. today, Thursday and Friday in the basement chamber of Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St., Modesto.