In the 1990s, Dick Lang was the Mayor of Modesto. During his tenure, he made a number of unpopular decisions. In 1999, Mr. Lang was voted out of office because citizens were fed up with higher fees and declining city services.
Early this year, Modesto Mayor Ted Brandvold won a runoff election. Since assuming office, he has established a pattern of decision making that eerily resembles the regime of former Mayor Lang. After only six months, the similarities are clearly evident.
Backed by the Same Interest Group
During the years Dick Lang was in office, he was strongly associated with the residential development industry. His campaigns were financed mainly by developers. In office, decisions were made in favor of developers at the expense of local taxpayers.
The Village One financing debacle was the pinnacle of Lang’s dubious decision to subsidize the cost of residential development infrastructure with taxpayer money. Despite the fact that residential dwellers do not pay enough taxes to fund the services they demand, Lang favored as much residential development as builders could construct.
Mayor Ted Brandvold is an architect. Much of his campaign money came from residential developers. His administration favors developers. Mr. Brandvold has asserted that residential development fees are too high and that he intends to reduce them. In addition, city staff has started searching for land to add to the general plan; the land will be used to build new houses.
Instead of encouraging in-fill and redevelopment of property within Modesto, the plan is to allow urban blight to spread in older parts of the city; new urban development will be built on prime farm land surrounding the city. Not enough demand for new housing exists to do both.
Dr. Vance Kennedy, who lives on Kiernan Avenue north of Modesto, recently told this writer that a city staff person is working on a plan to extend Modesto’s urban boundaries north of his property. Mr. Kennedy opined that the ultimate goal is to develop all land between the city and the Stanislaus River.
At a recent LAFCo meeting, Modesto representatives entered into an animated exchange with the city of Riverbank over a proposal for the smaller city to expand west and south into land that Modesto hopes to develop. LAFCO will meet to discuss the issue again on July 27th.
When Dick Lang was mayor, the city council increased water and sewer fees substantially. Rates seemed to go up annually. In fact, the city violated the provisions of California Proposition 218 by diverting about seven million dollars of water funds into the General Fund for purposes other than providing water. Not until Carmen Sabatino became mayor did the practice stop and rates stabilize.
When Ted Brandvold ran for office, he proclaimed that the City of Modesto had all the revenue it needed, helped defeat a proposed one percent sales tax increase, and used the campaign issue to defeat incumbent Mayor Garrad Marsh. Within 3 months of Brandvold’s election, city staff started working on a large multi-year water rate increase.
The details of the water rate increase are presently being worked out. Double digit annual rate increases are being proposed and will occur each year for several years. Will the additional revenue from rate increases be used to subsidize water connections to future new residential developments or used exclusively for maintenance and repair of existing infrastructure? The public will need to watch closely to contest a repeat of developer subsidies of the Lang era.
If Brandvold encourages construction of thousands of new homes, more police officers will be essential. Mayor Brandvold has eliminated some city jobs to provide money to add police officers, but he will not find much excess spending elsewhere within the city budget. To raise money, he could decide to close and sell the golf courses or the Modesto Centre Plaza. However, like Dick Lang, he may decide to continue subsidizing the money losers. Golf courses help sell houses.
Killing Off Popular Events
During Dick Lang’s tenure, events relating to American Graffiti were killed off. Cruising McHenry Avenue became illegal. Public celebrations were generally discouraged out of fear that young people would commit crimes during festivities. Graffiti events were reinstated only after Carmen Sabatino ousted Lang from office.
In office less than 6 months, the Brandvold Administration forced XFEST promoter Chris Ricci to move from downtown Modesto to Stockton. This was done by imposing conditions for the permit that required Ricci to hire so much security that he would have lost money on the event.
As time goes by, the promoters of Graffiti events could experience similar treatment. If any trouble occurs at any event, conditions may be imposed on future events that will make them unviable.
Mayor Brandvold has been following a political template consistent with the desires of residential development interests. As in the Lang era, services to the general public might not retain priority over subsidies to residential developers.
The economic boom in the current real estate cycle is due within the next few years. The Brandvold plan will enable developers to capitalize on the next short term surge in demand; the boom will be followed by another collapse in real estate values, aggravated by overproduction of houses.
With taxpayer subsidies, residential developers will make big money before the next recession; Modesto city government will accommodate them.
The Lang Administration did a lot of its work behind closed doors. Will the Brandvold administration operate in secrecy? We will watch as the pattern continues to develop.