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No half-cent roads tax proposal for now
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Voters likely won't be asked to support a new, half-cent sales tax to support transportation projects until 2014, following Stanislaus County Council of Governments Policy Board action Wednesday night.

Efforts to implement such a tax, which would predominantly pay to repair existing roads and to construct new regional connectors, failed in 2006, and again by fewer than 300 votes in 2008.

"I know the county doesn't have the money to do it," said County Supervisor Dick Monteith. "I know the cities don't have money to do it. So what makes us think we can pass it today when conditions are worse than the two previous times?"

The Policy Board had been asked to consider taking a half-cent sales tax to voters in 2012 as part of developing a transportation plan for the region. Stanislaus County does not qualify for many state and federal grants as it is not a so-called "self-help" county - those who opt to tax themselves for transportation.

And even those funds are more limited than ever before - burgeoning on non-existent - according to Monteith, a former state senator who sat on the transportation committee for eight years. But that doesn't mean they won't start up again, said Turlock City Councilwoman Mary Jackson, who worked as a journalist covering the state legislature.

"I understand the state and federal government are in debt, but they've been in debt for years and it's never stopped them from spending before," Jackson said.

Projections from 2008's 20-year tax proposal showed the tax would generate as much as $700 million in direct income, not including state and federal funds for self-help counties. Given the sharp decline in sales tax revenues, that same tax likely wouldn't generate as much today.

"Sales taxes went in the dump," Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour said. "We're not anywhere near what we would get out of a half cent sales tax when we did (that study)."

StanCOG staff had suggested putting the measure back on the ballot during the November 2012 presidential election. While that's still a year and a half off, preparing the item for ballots would require a seven to nine month process.

In addition to time, the effort would take money. StanCOG's projections showed a nearly $500,000 cost to complete required public sector work prior to the election, including an approximately $200,000 environmental impact report. In 2008, a further $500,000 was spent on campaigning for votes.

"We ain't got no money," Ridenour said, "same as the county. We're laying people off all the time.

"It isn't going to look any different in 2012 than it is today. We're going to be looking at 2015, 16, 17 before it starts climbing."

The majority of the policy board believed it wasn't just the wrong time for cities to finance the ballot measure - it was the wrong time to ask voters to tax themselves, given the current economy. Some, like Monteith, believed that asking voters to approve a tax now could jeopardize future efforts for such a tax, should the measure fail.

But others, including Riverbank Mayor Virginia Madueno, believed voters should have the chance to weigh in on the issue.

"We owe it to the voters," Madueno said. "And I have met with many people who make no more in a year than you make in one month, who understand the fundamental value of infrastructure in their community.

"I absolutely agree that these are tough times, but I can't sit here in good conscience and say let's wait until 2014 and hope our economy is better."

Madueno was the only one to hold that view. Jackson agreed in part, saying that the Policy Board should prepare and be ready for a ballot measure when the economy improves - a view shared by Modesto Vice Mayor Brad Hawn.

"I believe it's not the right time, but I don't believe we should be sitting on our rear ends and not be doing anything about it," Hawn said.

At Hawn's suggestion, the Policy Board will establish a committee to research the possibility of a future ballot measure.

The committee, whose membership and objectives will be at the discretion of Policy Board Chair Ridenour, will research public interest in the tax, possibly through a survey conducted in concert with California State University, Stanislaus.

Also on the agenda will be determining an indicator as when to put the tax on the ballot. Suggested indicators include a certain year, the state pulling the current 1 cent sales tax, or a recovery in the joblessness rate - a metric favored by Jackson.

The committee will also determine how funds gathered by a potential tax would be distributed. The 2008 effort would have split tax revenues equally between regional projects and the municipalities which generated the taxes. On Feb. 8, the Turlock City Council expressed support for a distribution which would return as much as 90 percent of revenues to cities, with less for regional projects.

Oakdale Mayor Pat Paul supported revisiting the measure in 2014, with a greater emphasis on public transportation spending. She said the current bus routes from Oakdale to Modesto make it difficult for workers to make it to their workplaces in a reasonable amount of time.

Whatever the final plan, the need remains for additional road money. The City of Modesto must spend $15 million annually just to maintain roads at their current service levels. It currently spends far less than that.

"There's no question we had the need before, and we have the need now," Monteith said.