The earth shook Tuesday night when the Modesto City Council voted 5-2 to put a one cent tax proposal on the November ballot. The vote could easily have been 6-1. Councilmember Dave Geer voted “no” only because he preferred a four year sunset to the six year duration of the proposal at hand.
The key takeaway is that all Councilmembers save Stephanie Burnside agreed the City has a severe revenue shortfall. Since the Council is predominantly anti-tax conservative, admitting we need a tax has to mean the situation is far more serious than most people think.
It was a bad night for the Chamber of Commerce and its allies, especially Prudential Realty’s Craig Lewis.
Tall, silver-haired, and pin-striped, Lewis came forward with the usually infallible rant about government waste and excess. He lamented that the city had functioned on reserves and failed to emulate businessmen like him by cutting staff during hard times.
His argument began taking on water almost immediately when City Manager Greg Nyhoff pointed out that Modesto had cut over 200 jobs in recent years. Things got worse for Lewis when a parade of local residents spoke in favor of the tax increase.
City Council candidate Jenny Kennoyer pointed out that because it’s designated as part of a “rural” region, Modesto receives only seven cents on the dollar from Sacramento while Stockton receives twelve cents. “I’m proud of our city,” she said. “Stockton is bankrupt and we’re not. I think we’ve done a fine job. I love my city,” she said. “I’m willing to pay one cent to save our city.”
A retired firefighter said that even though the city had more than doubled in size, fire staffs were at decades-old levels. He said fire department responsibilities had increased but staff and equipment had not. In graphic terms he spoke about watching helpless victims of automobile accidents “bleed out” because overburdened rescue teams arrived too late to help.
A long time Modesto resident said he wanted to feel that his family was safe in their homes and downtown. “We’ve grown this city so big we can’t afford it,” he said. “One cent is hardly enough. How often do developers come here and ask for a reduction in fees?”
It soon became clear that for all Councilmembers save Stephanie Burnside, the only issue was when the tax term would end. Dave Geer and Dave Cogdill favored a four year sunset. Joe Muratore agreed with Mayor Garrad Marsh that the term should be ten years. John Gunderson agreed with Muratore and Marsh.
Councilmember Dave Lopez favored a “six-to-eight-year” tax term. “We’ve cut to the bone, guys,” he said, apparently addressing Craig Lewis and Chamber of Commerce CEO Cecil Russell.
The pivotal moment came when Mayor Marsh asked Councilmember Cogdill whether he could accept a six-year “compromise” on the sunset date. Cogdill, who had repeatedly insisted that the Council promise citizens in detail just how the tax revenue would be spent, agreed to the six year termination date. The deal was done.
After the vote, members of the Chamber of Commerce huddled outside Tenth Street Place. No one expects them to give up without a fight. They will now wage a campaign against the tax much like the one they waged Tuesday night. All the old refrains about waste and spending will be brought forward and so will the “jobs, jobs, jobs,” refrain.
They are going to have a far more difficult time than usual. This City Council is full of conservative numbers-crunchers. If this City Council can agree we need revenue, then we really do need revenue. Only Stephanie Burnside argued otherwise last Tuesday, and she began looking as irrelevant as the Chamber when it became clear just how dire the situation really is. Modesto needs revenue. Now.