Here’s the risk of Modesto city and schools asking voters for more money at same time

·7 min read
Andy Alfaro/

Viewed independently, the sales tax increase and the school bond — both facing Modesto voters — deserve support.

The fact that both will appear on the self-same ballot in November is as rare as it is unfortunate.

That both are on the same ballot at a time of bruising inflation — with costs of gas, groceries and garbage going through the roof — does not bode well for either measure.

It’s tempting to chastise officials with both the city of Modesto and Modesto City Schools for ignoring each other’s path to the ballot box, and for downplaying people’s ability to pay more.

Both know that people — especially those with low or fixed income — will swallow hard at both, especially coming as they are at the same time.

And both agencies — City Hall and the school district — still insist that now is the right time to ask voters for more.

Is it?

Viewed independently, yes. The trouble comes when they’re viewed together — which voters no doubt will do.

Hard times at city of Modesto

The financial picture at Modesto City Hall is not pretty, from almost any angle.

Since the Great Recession, Modesto has dropped 27% of its staff, losing the equivalent of 224 employees, including 77 police jobs and 56 firefighting positions. The City Council is plugging the current $8 million budget deficit with savings from vacant positions, delayed maintenance and one-time funds such as COVID relief. Too many restrooms in parks are locked for lack of staff to maintain them, and some that remain open are downright scary.

City Manager Joe Lopez evokes the broken window theory, which holds that if one or two broken windows aren’t quickly replaced, people get used to seeing them and broken windows all over the neighborhood become the norm.

The same extends to litter and blight, fixing sidewalks, police response times and help for the homeless.

We can’t let that happen in Modesto, more than it already has.

Stockton has 1.7 police officers per 1,000 population. Modesto has 0.9. Since the recession, Modesto’s police jobs have shrunk 30%. “There is a tremendous strain on our police department,” Lopez told The Modesto Bee Editorial Board. “Our officers are exhausted.”

You might ask, “Why not just spend more on public safety, and less on other areas?” But that’s exactly what Modesto has done for more than a decade, to the point where public safety spending now constitutes 81% of the General Fund budget. That’s frightfully high — and yet our officers still are stretched far too thin. Small wonder that too many have left for jobs at other agencies with competitive pay and less stress.

So yes, the extra money is needed.

Let Modesto voters decide

Increasing Modesto’s tax rate from 7.875% to 8.875% could bring in an extra $39 million a year, the city says — a 23% boost to its General Fund, where the council has spending discretion. That would do wonders for police, parks, trees and much more.

Raising sales tax is not novel in the least. If voters in Ceres, Oakdale and Turlock can impose higher taxes on themselves in exchange for better services — and all have — people in Modesto absolutely deserve a chance to do the same.

Modesto voters had previous chances in 2013 and 2015, in the wake of recession. That’s when Measures X and G, respectively, failed by 2% and by nearly 12%.

If Modesto had tried again under the administration of former Mayor Ted Brandvold (2015-2020) — a time marked by frustration and political infighting — it likely would have failed again. People are loathe to throw their own money at dysfunction.

In that respect, this is the right time. Mayor Sue Zwahlen’s council is on the same page, pulling together in the same direction. Voters who see leaders working cooperatively are much more likely to trust that their tax dollars are being spent wisely. The Modesto City Council is right to want to capitalize on this goodwill, coupled with stark need.

Some conservative leaders who might be expected to oppose any tax — Councilman David Wright and Stanislaus County Supervisor Terry Withrow, to name just two — already are behind the measure. Expect to see many more join the cause, because it is just.

Modesto high schools need upgrades

Meanwhile, the school district has taken a parallel path for its bond measure to benefit Modesto’s eight high schools.

Because California lacks a dedicated source of meaningful revenue for school repair and construction, districts rely on bonds. The last one for high schools here came 21 years ago. The average age of these schools is 75. They have too many leaky roofs, wheezing air conditioning units, outdated science labs, sports venues in need of repair and much more. It’s time for another bond.

Wait — didn’t Modesto recently do a school bond? Yes, four years ago — but Measures D and E were only for elementary and middle schools, and that money by law cannot be used for high schools. Now it’s high schools’ turn.

School officials hope voters will recognize all the good that Measures D and E are doing for younger students, including perimeter fencing at a time of heightened security awareness, not to mention myriad new classrooms, drop-off lots and cafeteria upgrades. People are more likely to embrace a high school bond in the fall, the theory goes, because the district has proven itself a good steward of peoples’ money.

Voters also should consider our responsibility to send students off with a fighting chance to make it in college or career. Better facilities here — ones that can move with the times, adapting to technological advances — will better position them for success.

“Our kids need this, they’re worth it, so we’re going to work as hard as necessary to get it,” said Chad Brown, the school board’s vice president.

The bond would raise $198 million. Brown says some could be leveraged to match with state grants, increasing projects by perhaps 40%.

How Modesto measures differ

Because both the school bond and the sales tax increase are hitting at the same time, it’s worth looking at their differences.

First, who pays?

Anyone who buys almost anything in Modesto would pay more in sales tax. Obvious exceptions are groceries and prescription medicine. Something costing $10 now would cost $10.10 if voters approve the increase.

Property owners would repay the school bond. It would come to $29 per $100,000 in assessed value — $9.67 a month for a home worth $400,000 the last time it changed ownership.

The second big difference is where the money goes. Sales tax proceeds could be used for any expense at City Hall, while the school bond would only be spent on facilities — not salaries or employee benefits.

Third: vote threshold. The sales tax increase requires simple majority approval (50% plus one), while the school bond needs 55%.

Fourth is duration. The sales tax increase would remain indefinitely, while property taxes would revert when the school bond is repaid.

Better together

Years ago, then-Bee Editor Joe Kieta coined a term still in use by the editorial board: Mabel on Rumble. It refers to a fictitious person of limited means who is just trying to survive and doesn’t give a fig about all the polling that either agency did or comparisons to other cities to intellectually justify asking taxpayers for more money.

Why should Mabel on Rumble support both measures when everything else is costing more?

Look at it this way, Lopez said: When Mabel goes shopping, she will spend $101 instead of $100. “That $1 could allow us to fix the sidewalk in her neighborhood so that when she is out walking her dog, she won’t have to worry about hurting herself,” Lopez said. “It would allow us to respond quick(ly) if she suffers a medical emergency. It would allow us to get to that tree in her yard that has needed tending for a few years, and ensure branches don’t fall on her house. Yeah, we know times are tight and we have asked a lot, but that $1 could help us help Mabel so much.”

Said Brown, “I have room in my heart for two causes,” meaning the city’s and the school district’s.

Because both deserve voters’ support, city and school officials should ask their soon-to-be-formed volunteer campaign committees to explore creating a joint message. Rather than ignoring each other — and worse, ignoring the double-whammy to taxpayers from two measures on one ballot — they should consider formulating an honest, unified ask.

Continuing to pursue separate tracks risks the possibility that voters will throw up their hands and reject both. Tax fatigue is real.

Viewed independently, each measure makes sense. Making sense when they’re viewed together is the challenge, and the reality.