2004 State of the City Speech

State of the City 2004 State of the City Speech
City of Modesto
Given by Mayor Jim Ridenour
January 15, 2004

Mayor Jim Ridenour

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. A special good morning to the students of Thomas Downey High School who are with us today. I want to thank the students, because this is my first State of the City address and I wanted to come before you today. To come back to the future.

I come back because in 1958 I was one of you – a Downey Knight and a teenager with my whole life ahead of me. I come to the future because the young people here today represent the future of Modesto.

I wanted to give this speech in your presence because your generation will inherit, for better or worse, the results of what those of us in leadership roles accomplish or fail to accomplish. You are living reminders to us of the importance of our work as public servants.

Before I go on this morning, I would like to introduce my colleagues on the Modesto City Council. These are the public servants who, like me, are elected by the voters of the City of Modesto to direct the city government.

I would like to introduce the councilmember who is the Vice Mayor for 2004, Janice Keating. Also with us are Modesto City Councilmembers Bob Dunbar, Brad Hawn, Denny Jackman, Garrad Marsh and Will O’Bryant.

I would also like to introduce Modesto’s three charter officers. In our city’s form of government, these are the officials that the City Council hires who are directly responsible to us. They, in turn hire the rest of the city employees that provide the many services that citizens demand from their government. First, I would like to introduce our City Manager, Jack Crist. Next I would like to introduce our City Attorney, Mike Milich. And finally, I would like to introduce our City Clerk, Jean Zahr.

We are also joined on stage today by senior city management – the chiefs and department heads and top managers that run our city. Without them and the hundreds of employees of the City of Modesto, we could not provide the services expected of us by citizens and taxpayers. Please welcome them too.

Modesto is my hometown. This is the place where I was born, where I went to school and where I have worked for most of my adult life. This is where my family is and where my heart is. I love Modesto and feel blessed now to serve this great community as its mayor.

As I reflect on the current state of affairs in Modesto, I am reminded of the opening words in Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens started the book, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” While Dickens wrote about England, these words could just as easily apply to our present circumstances in Modesto.

The State of California faces a financial crisis that is so large, it is almost not believable. Whatever the solution, it is clear that cities throughout the state, including Modesto, will be seriously affected.

The image of Modesto has been damaged as a result of bad publicity from scandals and tragedies splashed all over the national and international news.

Our residents face an unemployment rate that is among the highest in the nation and our local wages are among the lowest in the state. The sad fact is that our community has never provided enough good jobs for its young people.

Unless something changes, many of you who would make important contributions to our city’s future may never do that here. Many of you will have to leave Modesto to achieve your dreams.

One of my dreams is to help make Modesto a place where you can achieve your dreams. Instead of having to move away, you could stay here to get a meaningful, high paying job of your choice. You could start a business here. One of you could be mayor here someday. If you stay here to achieve your dreams, it benefits all of us.

And yet, with all our troubles, we live at the center of the most promising region of the state, if not the nation. Our downtown is in the midst of a real revival. We will soon be the home of one of the finest centers for the performing arts in the country for a community of our size.

Our reputation as a regional medical center is now being enhanced by the plans to build a major new hospital here and by ongoing major expansions of our existing fine medical facilities.

And unlike so many other communities in our state, Modesto still is a great place to live and raise families. We have in Modesto a strong sense of place and a real opportunity to make tomorrow even better.

The type of actions we take, as your elected public servants will determine whether we seize the opportunity to do something special here or whether we will neglect our future and saddle our children and grandchildren with the consequences of our neglect. We have the choice to make the future the worst of times, or the best of times.

FINANCIAL HEALTH AND THE PROTECTION OF BASIC SERVICES

The primary function of our city government is to provide basic services, like police and fire protection, sewer and water service, all the basics that citizens need to function in our modern world.

None of these services can be provided without taxes collected from hard working citizens. Out of respect for this hard work, these services should be delivered efficiently and with the lowest possible tax burden.

With these issues in mind it is critical that the City of Modesto maintain a strong financial footing.

Last year the City Council made some impressive gains in authorizing the hiring of more fire fighters and making our pay and benefits more competitive for police officers. You see, Modesto was short of fire fighters. We were also losing police officers who would get trained and start their careers here but soon move to other cities that pay their police better. We must do all we can to hold onto to those important gains, but it won’t be easy.

It won’t be easy because of the financial mismanagement in Sacramento and because navigating municipal finance is not easy. There are many funds and many accounts and many sources of revenues. I think it is one of the reasons many taxpayers distrust their government so much. To the normal world, the world of government taxation and spending looks like something out of Alice in Wonderland – or, to your generation, maybe the Matrix.

But your elected officials must have an accurate understanding of the financial health of our city. Only with this knowledge can the City Council keep the police officers on duty, the fire fighters on the fire engines, the roads paved, and our water healthy and drinkable.

With this in mind, I have asked City Manager Jack Crist to provide the City Council with an executive summary of the state of financial health of the city. We want all the news – both the good and the bad – so we can properly plan for the future of the city. I have also asked the City Manager to provide the council with recommendations as to how we might address any budget challenges. We must also make City budget documents easier to understand so citizens can help us make the tough decisions about spending priorities for our city instead of having taxpayers left out of the process because it is all too difficult for a normal person to understand.

CREATING JOBS AND STIMULATING ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

Once we have a sound understanding of our financial condition, we can decide what our priorities are as a community. In Modesto, a lot of our needs are pretty obvious.

During my campaign, I wrote a book about some of my ideas and the ideas of the many people I talked to during the campaign. It amazed me how much common sense and wisdom there is in our city. I am not going to repeat everything I talked about in my book, but I do want to discuss a few important challenges we face.

The first one I have already mentioned. We have to act to lower our double-digit unemployment rate and raise our wages. I want you to be able to make your future in Modesto.

In an important way the young people here today can play a very major role in helping address these problems. Please get the best education you can. The best investment any of you will ever make is in your own education.

Modern economies around the world depend on an educated and talented workforce. Modesto is not just competing with Stockton and Fresno for good jobs. We are also competing with Stockholm and Hong Kong.

Unfortunately, the average level of educational attainment here in Stanislaus County is among the lowest in the State of California. That’s why during my campaign I promised to work on having homework centers available after school for your younger brothers and sisters and to start a Mayor’s Summer Reading Program. Our economic future as a city, state and nation depends on education.

The more of you who get good educations and develop valuable skills the more likely it will be that good businesses with great pay scales will choose to do business here.

Unlike many other areas of the State, including San Joaquin County to our north and Merced County to our south, we are not properly organized to address issues related to job creation and economic development at this time. I am encouraged by recent efforts of the Alliance and the Modesto Chamber of Commerce to better focus on these issues.

However, success, if it is to be had, must involve a countywide effort and must involve all the major private sector players. It is no longer appropriate for the most powerful private parties to stand at the sidelines.

I will be challenging our most successful private companies and individuals to help the community become a high wage, high skill center that can compete in the world economy. Condemning our area to double-digit unemployment and low wages is in no one’s best interest and is immoral to the people who suffer its bad effects.

There are concrete ways we can improve our economy right now. Modesto has become a regional medical center. Now Kaiser has identified Modesto as the site for a major new medical center. The new Kaiser operations directly and indirectly will create thousands of new jobs – from entry-level jobs to highly skilled occupations like nurses and doctors. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Kaiser project will be the single most important economic development decision that will face our City Council in the next decade.

Modesto needs modern business parks and modern office parks. These are the factories of the new economy where you could find work in high paying and meaningful jobs. The city has talked about new business parks for years. While we talk, others communities have built business parks. Much smaller communities are achieving what we have not. Manteca has. Lathrop has. Patterson has. Modesto has not.

Instead, the city has hired consultant after consultant and produced report after report. I am going to take a different approach. I have been in contact with the private sector experts who actually have built business parks. They can help us figure out why Modesto has not been able to produce a business park in twenty years.

I have asked the Modesto Chamber of Commerce to coordinate this effort to identify our failures in business park development. Once these failures are identified, we will act to correct them.

CREATING A MODERN TRANSPORTATION SYSTEM

A second important priority is to fix our broken transportation system. Let’s face it. Traffic in Modesto is a mess. Many days I feel like the roads are not any better than when I went to high school here. Historically, we neither properly planned nor properly financed our transportation system.

However, we are starting to make some small improvements. For example, the last City Council made paving more roads a key priority using existing sources of revenue. We will try to keep this up in bad budget times.

Also, last year, Supervisor Jeff Grover coordinated the first trip of local officials to Washington, D.C. to lobby federal officials for our local transportation needs.

A local businessman, Kirk Lindsey, serves on the important California Transportation Commission. He continually volunteers his time to local officials to try to help them learn how to access more state money. I have written Governor Schwarzenegger asking him to reappoint Mr. Lindsey to the Commission next month.

We need to continue lobbying Washington and Sacramento for transportation money.

There has been much talk in recent years of proposing a new sales tax for transportation. This tax can only be a last resort. Before new taxes are even considered, we must undertake an overhaul of local transportation policy.

First, we need to make sure developer fees are reviewed annually so we can ensure new growth is paying its fair share for needed roads.

Second, we need to establish a regional transportation fee on new growth so we can build matching funds for state and federal monies. Third, we need to coordinate the efforts of the county and all the cities in Stanislaus County to understand which road projects each of us is collecting money for and which are being ignored.

Fourth, we need to make sure StanCOG – our local transportation planning agency – is ready for the job. StanCOG does not have a good history of keeping up with the demands for new roads. It needs to be fixed before our roads can be fixed. Fifth, we need to maximize all existing sources of revenue to see how much of our road backlog can be built with existing monies.

Only after all these methods have been maximized should we consider a transportation sales tax.

One last item I must mention here is the Kiernan – State Route 219 expansion. Current plans show this route being expanded to four and perhaps six lanes as an expressway. This route is our last chance in north Modesto and northern Stanislaus County to have an east – west route that connects Modesto, Riverbank and Oakdale to Highway 99.

A repeat of McHenry Avenue or the Briggsmore Avenue will not do. We should work for more. Without a true east-west freeway in the north county, economic development will be doomed and gridlock will be our destiny. I have requested a meeting with the Mayors of Riverbank and Oakdale and the county supervisors who represent all these areas to see if we can make this happen.

MANAGING MODESTO’S GROWTH

When I was a student at Downey High Modesto had a population of about 35,000 people. Today the population is over 200,000. Population forecasts for Modesto suggest that our population could double, to over 400,000, by the time the young people here today are in their forties.

Who will these additional people be? By and large they will be your children and families. Some people in our community would rather not deal with providing room for you. They have their own homes and they really don’t care about making room for the next generation. We cannot embrace selfish no growth policies, but neither can we embrace growth for growth’s sake.

In dealing with the future growth of Modesto we have a choice. We can take the necessary steps to shape the future or we can allow external forces to shape our city for us.

By external forces I mean, for example, developers and landowners who are driven almost exclusively by the profit motive. By external forces I also mean other municipalities and the County who, in the absence of strong leadership from Modesto, might pursue policies that make the growth of our City and county far less attractive and sensitive than it should be.

Our farmland is being threatened and, along with it, the quality of life and rural heritage we have come to enjoy and value in our valley communities. We can, and we must, meet the needs of our residents for good jobs and decent, affordable shelter. But we must avoid urban sprawl outside the logical growth areas of our cities. Furthermore, to the extent possible, we must direct growth to areas containing nonprime soils.

The voters of Modesto agree with this approach and they spoke very clearly on November 4, when they passed Measure H by a two-thirds margin. Through Measure H, they said they want urban growth directed into the cities. As mayor, I intend to take this to heart. I will work to put into place policies that implement Measure H.

So, we cannot have growth for growth’s sake. We should use growth strategically. A policy of Strategic Growth would ask questions like: Does it help us build business parks? Does it help us provide housing for people who aren’t fortunate enough to make Bay Area wages? Does it help protect or increase our sales tax base? Does it help us fix our infrastructure problems?

Strategic Growth will answer, “yes” to one or more of these questions. For example, the important Roselle neighborhood annexation will help us provide important retail opportunities on the east side of town and help secure and expand our tax base as a city.

COOPERATION AND COLLABORATION

Beyond these very basic needs –economic development, transportation, managing growth – Modesto has many other opportunities to enhance our quality of life. Modesto has become a large city. But we are lacking in many cultural amenities that make a city a special place and a world class competitor. We have started closing the gap through wonderful projects like the forthcoming Gallo Performing Arts Center. As mayor, I want to work to further close the gap.

So, whether we are talking about the government basics or closing the culture gap, there is one characteristic they both share – both require cooperation and collaboration. And in these tough budget times, Modesto must collaborate both with other levels of government and with the private sector because that way we can be efficient and smart about our priorities.

First, we must improve our relations with all other levels of government.

With this in mind I have asked State Assemblyman – and former Modesto City Councilmember - Dave Cogdill to facilitate dialog between the City and our elected State representatives and important state agencies.

With this in mind I have asked United States Congressman Dennis Cardoza to meet with me to strengthen ties between the city and the federal government.

Our job is to clearly identify what our priorities as a community are and where the state and federal government can help.

We also need to work better with other agencies closer to home. I already talked about some of those. And with this in mind, I met with the 2003 Chairman of the County Board of Supervisors, Ray Simon, before the New Year began to start restoring a constructive dialog between Modesto and Stanislaus County.

As Modesto has grown, we have failed to properly address issues of mutual concern with our neighbors. To help address this, I have requested meetings with the mayors of Ceres and Riverbank and hope to hold joint council meetings with those cities to work on matters that are of mutual interest.

As Modesto has grown, we have become a bit threatening to our unincorporated neighbors in Empire and Salida. To improve relations, I have asked the responsible county supervisors to introduce me to the municipal advisory councils of those communities so that we can begin a dialogue over issues of mutual concern like traffic congestion.

I am also concerned about what was referred to at last week’s council meeting as “no man’s land” – the unincorporated pockets between and within the cities of Ceres, Modesto and the county. It is a difficult issue because of the staggering sums involved to improve those neighborhoods, but we must find a way to provide roads and sidewalks and sewer services to those old neighborhoods.

In addition to working with other levels of government, we need our private sector actively engaged in making Modesto a better place to live. Some first steps have been taken. Pete Bakker’s enhancement of the Briggsmore entrance to Modesto, Tony Mistlin’s commitment to public water fountains, the Modesto Garden Club’s commitment to downtown flower pots, and five Modesto Rotary Clubs helping with the first phase of the Virginia Corridor parkland trail project are examples of what we need more of.

To encourage this private sector enhancement of our community, I will name private sector task forces to address important areas where we can make a difference in Modesto.

For example, I will establish a Mayor’s Task Force on Art in Public Places that will find ways to increase the amount of art in Modesto that the public can enjoy.

I will appoint the Mayor’s Task Force on a Better Work Force to head up my effort to start the summer reading program and provide homework centers and identify other ways to increase our work force skill and dependability. The Mayor’s Task Force on the UC Med School will determine if we can compete with other communities in landing the new medical school being planned by the University of California. These and other task forces will be headed up by private sector individuals wanting to make Modesto a better place.

ACCOUNTABILITY

For our goals as a city to be realized, we must be accountable to our citizens and taxpayers and have excellent communication. We will take some minor steps to achieve these goals.

As I have stated elsewhere, we will experiment with holding some of our city council meetings in our neighborhoods. When we meet in a neighborhood, one of the items of business will be an update from city staff on the status of government services in that neighborhood.

I plan on touring our city service clubs, churches, trade associations, and non-profit groups to get their feedback on how we are doing as a city and what our citizens believe the priorities to be. To these groups I ask, please invite me so that I can hear your ideas and concerns.

We will set up a system on our city website where citizens can volunteer for existing citizen advisory committees or the new mayor task forces.

We will create an internet virtual suggestion box to capture our citizens’ best ideas on how our city government can be better.

We will also establish more accountability to the people. I will start by having the ideas I outlined in my book “Modesto Tomorrow” posted on the City’s website so citizens can follow the progress on the policy ideas I put forward during the campaign.

We will revise the City’s strategic plan so that it shows priorities, and makes results or the lack of results clear and measurable to the public.

We will explore posting the City’s budget documents on the website so that people can become familiar and provide comments on the financial workings of their government.

CONCLUSION

I hope my remarks today help in some small way shine a light on issues of importance facing our city.

As mayor I have been blessed with the opportunity to serve. My fellow council members have been similarly blessed. Our outstanding city staff is organized to serve and be responsive to the people.

But we cannot solve the problems facing us or seize the opportunities available to us without the help of our citizens. The nature of our times demands that the people lend a hand, a big hand in helping us make Modesto’s tomorrow.

I would like to extend a special thank you to the young people here today. You are our future and the reason we serve. While we serve the public, I hope that we will all remember that you are how we will be judged.

When one of you is up here as Mayor in the year 2049, I hope you will fondly remember those who are before you today. May you say to us then, “they gave us a city of prosperity, a city of art, a city with heart, a city with a future.”

Thank you and God Bless the City of Modesto.

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