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Road tax headed for 16 ballot
Sales tax increase has better chance with larger turnout
Ceres road conditions are mostly good but are rough in places like Nadine Avenue. A road tax may be on the 2016 ballot to create more dollars to fix the countys crumbling road surfaces. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

In November 2016, county voters will be weighing in on a proposal to increase sales tax in Stanislaus County by a half-cent to improve roads.

The decision to proceed with an election in over two years was made on Wednesday by the Stanislaus Council of Governments (StanCOG). The same policy board decided in March that November 2014 was not the right time to ask for a countywide half-cent sales tax measure on the ballot. Earlier this year a consultant suggested that voters are not onboard this year 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 since presidential elections draw more voters and tend to draw younger Democratic voters who have less cynical views on new taxes.

Similar measures failed in 2006 and 2008.

Still to be decided is how the tax money would be divvied up among the county and nine cities. StanCOG must also decide on which major projects to pin to the new tax funding source. It's generally believed that projects will be picked on the basis of popularity to garner the greatest level of support from throughout the county.

Turlock this week voted to place its own half-cent sales tax on the November ballot. According to city staff, the sales tax initiative, also known as the "Pothole Repair, Existing City Street Improvement and Maintenance, and Transit Farebox Recovery Ratio Assistance Expenditure Plan," is estimated to generate approximately $5.6 million per year, of $39.2 million over its seven year lifespan.

If Turlock voters approve the tax, it would fall away if county voters approve a countywide increase in 2016.

For months, StanCOG officials had discussed with officials with the nine cities and the county about putting forth a 2014 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. But 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 polling data mirrored the polling data from 2008.

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.

City Manager Toby Wells has argued that the tax increase is needed to preserve the condition of Ceres street pavement, which he says will continue to worsen without the extra funding.

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.

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.