Modesto chamber looks for bigger role in public safety discussion

Modesto CofC

The Modesto Chamber of Commerce wants to have more of a voice in the discussion over how the city solves its public safety challenges, such as cutting into the crime rate and finding the money to hire more police officers and firefighters.

The chamber has formed a public safety committee to do just that and has invited the city’s two main public safety unions as well as city, police and fire officials to serve on it. Former Mayor Jim Ridenour will serve as committee chairman.

The city has not had success increasing public safety staffing and funding. It put general sales tax increases on the November ballot in 2013 and 2015 only to have voters reject them. As general taxes, they could have been spent on any general government purpose, but city officials said they intended to spend most of the taxes on public safety.

Mayor Garrad Marsh spearheaded both efforts and supports the chamber’s. He said he and other top city officials, such as police Chief Galen Carroll, will be at the committee’s first meeting this month.

“I welcome all input to finding a way to improve public safety in the city of Modesto,” Marsh said. “I’ve been saying for years we need more cops, and hopefully we will find a way to do that.”

Modesto cut city services during the recession and its aftermath, including public safety. For instance, the Police Department saw its number of allocated officers fall from 287 in 2008 to 219 today.

Chamber Vice Chairman Steve Madison said the committee will let the chamber better educate its roughly 900 members – which range from small businesses to large institutions, such as Memorial Medical Center – and the chamber’s leadership on public safety issues. He said crime and vagrancy are among the top concerns for chamber members.

The committee also will explore ideas “to enhance revenue for crucial (public safety) services,” according to a news release. Madison said that could include looking at a special public safety tax, which unlike a general sales tax requires two-thirds voter approval but can only be spent on its special purpose. He said the committee could look at whether it makes sense for the city to raise its transient occupancy tax to pay for more public safety services. The tax is paid by motel and hotel guests.

Madison said the chamber wants to be more involved than just having the city ask every couple of years for its support on a sale tax increase. The chamber did not take a position on either proposal. “It isn’t going to work if the city keeps running tax measures up the flagpole,” Madison said, “and the chamber keeps saying no. We have to figure out something.”

The Modesto Police Officers Association and the Modesto City Fire Fighters Association plan on sending representatives to the first meeting. The public safety unions and the chamber have not always seen eye to eye over the years, such as over pay and benefits for employees. But this could be an opportunity to see where they can work together.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to tell more of our story,” MCFFA Vice President Ruben Esparza said about the committee, and “to see what their views are and what our views are. Without public safety, business does not do well. Without business, public safety does not do well.”

MPOA President Tony Arguelles said: “We are in a new environment. It’s important that the entire community work together for public safety solutions.”

The committee comes as Marsh is in a Feb. 2 runoff election against architect Ted Brandvold. The chamber and the two public safety unions are supporting Brandvold. But Madison said this is independent of the election and he started working on the committee about a year ago.

The two unions worked with the chamber to defeat Measure I on the November ballot. The measure called for putting an urban growth boundary around three-fourths of Modesto.

Madison said the committee is similar to the chamber’s other committees on education, economic development, government relations and water. He said committee meetings are not open to the public.