Bruce Frohman served on the Modesto City Council 1999-2003
This November, Modesto voters will decide whether to raise the sales tax by one half percent. If Measure G passes, taxes will rise only within the city limits. The tax expires in eight years; after that time voters will decide whether to extend the increase or make it permanent.
Ever since California Proposition 13 passed over 30 years ago, property tax increases have been limited to 2 percent annually statewide.
Most years, because of inflation, the cost of government rises faster than property tax revenues, which are the primary means of funding local government. Each year, all levels of government within the state experience greater difficulty in funding services and infrastructure.
Since Proposition 13 passed, local governments stay solvent by either adding user fees, imposing new taxes, obtaining federal grants, deferring maintenance, or by cutting services.
State Suffers the Least
Because the State of California is the most powerful government statewide, it has suffered fewer financial constraints than city governments. Whenever California needs money, it increases a larger assortment of taxes and user fees than those available to the cities; it has confiscated money that previously was collected by the cities and has never reversed the taking.
For example, the state takes all revenue raised from traffic fines; cities used to keep traffic fine revenue. After the recession of 2008, the state took away all redevelopment money from the cities.
Does Any City Need a Sales Tax Increase?
If the State of California returned to the cities previous sources of revenue, local finances would be less critical. Unfortunately, neither the governor nor legislature is inclined to share any revenue, regardless of how prosperous the state becomes. The state has its own list of public works projects, social programs and unmet needs for which every dollar of revenue is designated.
The constraints of Proposition 13 combined with the spending habits of the state legislature have forced local governments to either raise taxes or cut services. The revenue shortage is not unique to Modesto. Many cities throughout the state already have a higher sales tax than Modesto.
Opposition in Modesto
Opponents of Measure G argue that the Modesto City Council wastes the public’s money and cannot be trusted. While the claims seem to have merit each time the City Council makes a new bonehead decision, the number of dollars recently cited as being misused is usually a small percentage of the total budget.
In making the case for a sales tax increase in past elections, proponents have been unable to convince a majority of voters that Modesto needs additional revenue. Campaigns in favor have been exasperatingly incompetent and ineffective. Will this time be different?
Modesto’s Fiscal Situation
As a result of the failure of proponents to pass sales tax increases and the failure of the city council to adjust water and sewer user rates upwards, Modesto faces a plethora of financial challenges: The water and sewer systems have tens of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance. The failure to maintain infrastructure results in pipe failures, leaks and street failures. If more money isn’t available for infrastructure, the number of structural failures may become unmanageable. The drought has cut revenue, compounding the funding deficit.
Modesto’s streets are among the worst in the nation. The tree trimming program can no longer maintain Modesto’s urban forest.
The number of police officers on duty has fallen to less than one per thousand citizens. Because fewer officers are on patrol, people feel less safe and are resorting to other security measures such as buying guns, hiring private security, and installing expensive security equipment. Instead of paying a little higher sales tax, Modestans have chosen to pay a lot more for private security measures. Those without resources, such as the poor and elderly, have become much more vulnerable to criminals; Modesto is a less desirable place to live.
Fire services have been cut back with fewer employees on duty. A citizen could lose his life any day when emergency services are late to arrive.
Kicking the Can
As the voters of Modesto keep kicking the can down the road, the financial situation becomes more critical each day. Does the average citizen notice the deterioration? One wonders how bad the quality of life must become before a majority of voters realize that taxpayers can receive good service only if they are willing to pay for it.
Proposition 13 eliminated property taxes as an adequate funding source. No outside help is coming to provide a financial bailout. A sales tax is our only viable option.
If Measure G fails, Modesto will survive, but quality of life will continue to deteriorate. Is mere survival all we want?