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Panel: no transportation tax election
Consultant notes that support for a local tax is not high enough
Ceres streets will not be maintained as they should without added tax revenues. In the meantime, streets like Nadine Avenue west of Richland Avenue will continue worsening in quality. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

In a surprising action, the Stanislaus Council of Governments (StanCOG) decided on Wednesday night not to place a countywide half-cent sales tax measure on the November ballot.

Similar measures failed in 2006 and 2008.

Polling data examined by the StanCOG policy board suggests that voters are not onboard to provide the necessary two-thirds majority for passage. Officials believe it will have a better chance of passage during the presidential election of 2016.

"The conversation with the policy board really focused on what do we need to do to increase the possibility of success given the less than enthusiastic poll results," said Acting Ceres City Manager Toby Wells, who is also city engineer and Public Works director.

For months, StanCOG officials had discussed with officials with the nine cities and the county about putting forth the tax measure to generate $970 million over a 25-year period. The tax funds were to be spent on regional road projects - such as the Service/Mitchell/99 interchange in Ceres - and to beef up each city's road maintenance budget. Armed with the discouraging polling data, the StanCOG policy board - comprised of 16 elected officials in the county - decided against like the risk of spending the necessary funds on another failed election. Wells said StanCOG would have had to spend approximately $400,000 to conduct the environmental studies necessary to get the measure on the ballot.

StanCOG learned that support for a half-cent sales tax has waned since it failed by a small margin in 2008. Polling data from the firm EMC Research noted that only 61 percent of those who partook in a phone survey would support a potential measure this fall with three percent leaning toward support. That level of support would result in failure since it needs 66.67 percent. The preliminary polling data is very similar to the polling data from 2008.

"It got really close but some of the things really gave them pause," said Wells. The pollsters learned that support for the tax did not increase when the benefits of the tax were explained.

Pollsters believe that a half-cent sales tax measure may succeed in 2016 since presidential elections draw more voters and tend to draw younger Democratic voters who have less cynical views on new taxes, said Wells.

"With two years the agencies could all do a little more education and explanation of the gas tax and all those funding sources to help understand the need better," said Wells.

EMC's Ruth Bernstein said county voters are largely distrustful of how local politicians spend tax money. Convincing them otherwise is going to be harder in Oakdale, she said, where voters have the most resistant to the tax. She said Oakdale voters helped sink the 2008 measure.

Support for a new tax seems to be higher with Latino voters (85 percent) versus non-Latinos (61 percent). Women are less likely to support the tax than male voters.

The voters who were polled by EMC said they see crime as a more pressing need than road maintenance.

Wells predicts that the condition of Ceres street pavement will continue to worsen without the lack of funding.

"Without continued road maintenance the road condition will continue to deteriorate," said Wells. "Unfortunately that's a simple fact."

StanCOG hired Nichols Consulting Engineers to analyze each of the nine cities' pavement conditions. Wells said Ceres rated an overall 69, or just beneath "good" condition on a scale of 1 being worst and 100 being perfect. But he said road conditions will start slipping quickly without more money. Wells then explained the importance of maintaining streets through slurry seal to avoid more expensive fixes later.

The study concluded that Ceres should be spending $2.2 million annually on street maintenance but only spends $400,000. The city has been unable to keep up, said Wells, because gas tax monies are dwindling and asphalt prices have increased eight-fold since 1999.

"As you get further along without doing preventative maintenance, the more it's going to cost," said Wells. "So the phrase, ‘pay now or pay more later' is really ‘pay a lot more later.' The longer you wait to do preventative maintenance the more it costs."

He noted that a slurry seal costs $4 per square yard and can prevent streets from sliding into the poor condition category.

StanCOG's decision means that, in the short-term, Ceres does not "any funding source for local road maintenance."
Wells said the gas tax money from the state goes to simple road maintenance, such as filling potholes, and cleaning a street after an accident.

The federal component of the gas tax, or the Regional Surface Transportation program, he said, supplies Ceres with $400,000 to $500,000 annually. The city, however, needs to be spending about $2.5 million a year on roads.