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#1 Goal: Water, sewer upgrades priority
Mayor Anthony Cannella took approximately 15 minutes at Monday's City Council meeting to outline goals for Ceres as well as review accomplishments in the past year.

Cannella stated the obvious challenges imposed by a struggling California economy during his annual State of the City address.

The mayor explained that the city's goals were hammered out during an annual strategic planning session held earlier this year.

"This year will certainly present many challenges due to the current economic downturn facing this nation," said Cannella. "The overall slowdown in the economy has resulted in dwindling city property and sales tax revenue, which means less revenues for city General Fund services such as parks and recreation. However, thanks to the citizen's support for Measure H, Ceres will be one of the few cities in California that will be increasing the size of its sworn police force and firefighters, while others are freezing and even eliminating positions."

"The highest priority is ensuring that we operate in a fiscally prudent manner. The economy will rebound. It may take two or three years, maybe more - until then we will need to tighten our belts and focus on the highest priorities."

Cannella shared the city's top goals for the year, with upgrading the water and sewer systems.

"This year we have made well development and well rehabilitation our number one priority," said Cannella. "For the last couple of years, we have had a difficult time meeting our peak flow demands. There were several occasions where the water pressure was so low that we needed to take extreme actions so that we could provide the minimum pressures required to provide fire protection. We have made significant progress during the last 12 months. As of today, we have either added or rehabilitated five wells which has provided and additional 2,625 gpm to our system, increasing our overall system capacity by 23 percent."

Cannella indicated that the city will look to raise water and sewer rates to keep up with the demands of meeting increasingly stringent quality standards. He said cost increases have been passed onto Ceres by the cities of Turlock and Modesto which provide some sewer disposal services. A water rate increase is also justified, he said, because state and federal laws are requiring more expensive treatment to filter out undesirable elements at a time when there is a "continued deterioration of the quality of our groundwater."

The mayor noted that city water rates have remained the same for over 10 years but noted that current rates are "at the bottom compared to other neighboring cities in what we charge for water delivery."

Another goal is continued implementation of Measure H. The city put the new Street Crimes Unit (SCU) on the streets and will soon be hiring two new Fire Division battalion chiefs at the beginning of this fiscal year, enabling 24-hour coverage in that position.

"We will also be able to hire three new firefighters to begin the transition from only having two firefighters on each fire engine to staffing them with three firefighters. Fire Station #1 - our busiest fire station - will be the first to have a three-person engine company and, as Measure H revenues continue to accrue, each of our four fire stations will eventually have the same staffing configuration. The addition of a three-person engine company along with the new battalion chiefs will substantially increase the city's ability to handle fires and other emergencies, while making the job safer for the firefighters and the community as a whole."

Another council priority is developing a Downtown Revitalization Plan by next spring that provides for the improvement of infrastructure and regulates land use to enhance the economic vitality, appearance and livability of downtown Ceres.

"If we want to transform downtown so that it can reach its full potential," said Mayor Cannella, "we must continue to work with the property owners and business owners. It will take a partnership between the public and private groups for this endeavor to be successful. If one member of this team does not fully participate, this effort will fail."

Another goal is to update the city's Public Facilities Fees to "ensure that all the cost of new development to the community is shouldered fully by new development."

The council is also pushing for continued progress on a new Service/Mitchell/99 interchange. He said the city is completing plans and obtaining funds for the project. The final Environmental Impact Report and the preliminary engineering plans should be completed in 2009, enabling the city to begin purchasing right of way.

Cannella put in a plug for voters to support the proposed countywide half-cent sales tax on the ballot this November for road projects.

"I know it is frustrating because every time we turn around we are taxed-but if we want to improve our roads and guarantee a funding source for road maintenance for the next 20 years, this is the only way we can do it," said Cannella.

The mayor noted that the measure would ensure $35 million for the Service/Mitchell/Highway 99 interchange, saying it would "go a long way towards finally constructing this interchange."

The new tax, if passed, would generate $30 million to maintain Ceres streets.

Cannella said the tax would mean Stanislaus County would become a "self help" county which means no longer receiving leftover funding.

"If we pass this half-cent sales tax we will be eligible for matching funds from the state of California. What does that mean to us? Well, best case, the $35 million we would receive towards Service Mitchell could grow to $70 million with matching funds. That is close to what we need to build this interchange."

Finally, Cannella noted that the city is moving forward on the renovation of Costa Fields baseball complex within Smryna Park.

An architect will be chosen to rebuild the concession stand/announcer's booth and restroom facilities.

"Our goal is to begin renovation next year."

Cannella cited achievements during the past year, including:

• The opening of Ceres Fire Station #4 to provide for faster emergency response in the northeast area of Ceres;

• The beginning of construction of the new Community Center;

• Initiating a multi-phased organizational assessment of city operations to increase overall effectiveness;

• Passage of Measure H to expand our police and fire services;

• Completion of Sam Ryno and Marie Neel parks.

• Adoption of a joint strategic plan with the Ceres Unified School District that addresses the sharing of facilities, joint infrastructure planning and funding, crime and gang prevention and intervention, workforce/economic development, community services and joint facility maintenance.

• He also noted that the Whitmore/ Hwy. 99 interchange is due to be awarded next month with completion by December 2010.