Nobody at City Hall will ever admit it, but home builders control Modesto’s government. Campaign contributions help elect shills to the City Council. The shills take instruction from those who helped them get elected. Some have even gotten text messages during Council meetings.
Former Modesto Mayor Carmen Sabatino has battled special interest groups for years, but the groups’ abundance of money and ambitious citizens willing to work for them is never ending. The reason is simple. There’s financial gain for those who cater to special interests and no reward other than the satisfaction of doing a good job for the rest.
Given the outrageousness of the above assertions, what evidence exists that residential developers control City Hall? One only need look at the important decisions made each year.
The last year of Mayor Jim Ridenour’s term, the City Council voted to lower Capital Facilities Fees. The reduction in fees means that residential growth no longer pays the entire cost of infrastructure to serve itself. The general population now subsidizes residential development, just like in the days before Carmen Sabatino was elected Mayor in 1999.
This past year, Modesto’s City Council spent $200,000 on a study about annexing unincorporated Salida. While the honestly stated vision was to promote job creating industrial development, past history has shown that when industry doesn’t want the land, houses are built instead. The $200,000 could have been spent to hire more police, but developer interests come before public safety in Modesto.
Last Tuesday, former Modesto City Councilmember Denny Jackman presented a proposal to establish an urban limit line for the City of Modesto, allowing land outside the line to be used only for farming or commercial development. Because home builders and their allies believe they should have the right to build houses all the way to the County line, they opposed the limit line. Their majority on the City Council rejected Jackman’s proposal to put the issue on the ballot. Instead, they voted to send the proposal to Committee, where the idea will eventually be killed or twisted into something completely different. This tactic is used repeatedly by the residential developers’ political machine.
Presently, the Carpenter Road bridge is being widened at the Tuolumne River. The widening is not to accommodate the needs of business. It’s to serve new houses planned on the south side of the river. This development will have inadequate infrastructure fees to pay for itself without a subsidy from the entire community. Meanwhile, the City of Modesto has no road construction projects for the purpose of encouraging economic development in the community.
In the next few years, the Pelandale Expressway will be extended to 6 lanes from McHenry Avenue to Oakdale Road. Presently 2 lanes, the widened road won’t serve new business that is vital for economic development. Instead, it will serve a new residential project named Village 2 or Tivoli, without adequate infrastructure fees in place.
The Rest of the Community is Going Downhill
While Councilmembers cater to home builders, the rest of the community is deteriorating. Police and fire services have been cut to the point where Mayor Marsh is now asking for a half cent sales tax to reinstate previously cut positions. Crime is running rampant. Police staffing per capita is about the lowest in the nation among cities with similar populations. Street sweeping service is less than once a month, making much of the city look ugly and dirty. Parts of Woodland and Kansas Avenues haven’t been repaved in over 30 years.
Passage of the half cent sales tax will enable subsidies to residential developers to continue. A proposed parcel tax for police was immediately dismissed because residential developers would have to pay extra for subdivided land they are holding for future home construction, with subsidized capital facilities fees. Perhaps the most tragic aspect of the residential subsidies has been the stunted economic growth in the rest of the community.
Subsidies in the past resulted in the construction of too many houses. When the housing boom went bust, Modesto was hit harder than almost anywhere else in California. Property values dropped, and foreclosures soared. The property tax shortfall caused service cuts, and businesses dependent on the housing boom folded.
A Grim Future
The continued control of the Modesto City Council by home builders is hindering economic recovery in part because Modesto is an unattractive community. (Please refer to this writer’s previous Valley Citizen article about what the community needs to do for the economy to recover fully and become prosperous.)
While existing area business parks have mediocre access to transportation corridors, the Tivoli residential development will get a six lane expressway. This is not a good recipe for job growth.
Modesto’s economy may continue to struggle as long as the subsidies to the residential development community continue. City money is not being spent to stimulate long term job growth. The subsidies may be setting the community up for the next residential boom and bust.
Unfortunately, not enough citizens without a financial interest in City policy are willing to serve in office. This may be the result of the deliberate acts of residential developers to make life miserable for those who aren’t considered “friendly.” But that’s the subject of another story that may never be written.
Editor’s Note: Bruce Frohman was a Modesto City Councilmember from 1999-2003.