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Cities fears tax grabs by state
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Ceres city officials don't like what they see coming on the horizon. State lawmakers are talking about looking to city and county coffers to make up for state budget shortfalls.

Not fair, cried city officials last week and again at Monday's Ceres City Council meeting.

Last week Mayor Anthony Cannella joined five other mayors within Stanislaus County to stage an August 5 public protest about a potential raid on local government coffers. The mayors staged a ceremonial "local government credit card" being cut in two, signifying the local leaders' opposition to the state's habit of "borrowing" funds from local government, transportation, and redevelopment tax revenues.

Should the state Legislature pass the budget with borrowing measures in place, more than $7 million would be withheld from Stanislaus County cities this year alone. Since 1991, almost $75 million has been kept from county cities as the state has patched budget shortcomings with local dollars.

Canella said that the $400,000 the state could withhold from his city this year would cover the cost of three police officers, four firefighters, or the entire recreation district programming for Ceres. Should the state not pass those funds onto Ceres, the city will be forced to endure this budget shortfall on top of the cuts it has already made due to the poor economy.

The city of Hughson stands to take a $63,383 revenue hit.

"All too often when the economy takes a downturn the state decides to prey upon local government," said Turlock Vice Mayor Kurt Vander Weide. "The state is so incredibly wasteful. As it is they have more than enough money to do the job that they need to do right now, but they waste so much of it, they throw so much away.

"Special interests absolutely control what happens at state level. We're so busy feeding those predators that we can't get the important things done."

California voters overwhelmingly passed two propositions in the past four years that were intended to prevent the state from borrowing property, sales, and transportation tax revenues from local cities.

Included in those laws, however, were provisions that allowed the measures to be suspended should the governor declare a fiscal necessity and two-thirds of the Legislature approve. In the case of transportation taxes, this process was limited to only twice per 10-year period, and required the state to repay loans within three years.

"I'm a CPA," said Riverbank Mayor Chris Crifasi. "I know numbers. Every dollar they take away only improves their cash flow by 31 cents, (but if it stays local) it generates $7 in state and local tax revenues."

Should the state succeed in withholding city funds to patch the more than $15 billion budget deficit it is facing, it's likely that cities will find themselves in even more grave situations than they were when drafting budgets just a few months ago. Ceres could stand to lose out on $586,373 this year, which would come on top borrowing from reserves to cover city operations for the 2008-09 fiscal year.

City Manager Brad Kilger predicted layoffs and scaled back services if the state goes the way it's headed. He called on all Ceres residents to call Assemblyman Greg Aghazarian and state Senator Jeff Denham to voice opposition to the state's plan to "take the easy way out and take the cities' money."

Planned cuts to other areas of the state budget are also expected to get passed down to local governments, as cities will be expected to pay for some state services that were once included. Changes to state law regarding the use of the state crime lab and booking fees will are expected to cause the Modesto Police's budget to grow by more than $1.1 million, while funds used by local governments to purchase vehicles, equipment, and technology are also likely to be cut.

All of the various county officials present at the event seemed to believe there was only one way to prevent the worst-case scenario from happening.

"I hope the citizens of Stanislaus County communities rise up to let legislators know they're opposed to this happening year after year after year," implored Turlock Mayor John Lazar.

The few alternatives to withholding local government tax funds include what could be painful budget cuts and tax increases. However, in order to truly balance the budget long term, local officials believe such drastic measures could be needed.