Turlock has some of the worst streets in Stanislaus County. Crumbling pavement and pot holes are evident on streets like East Avenue.
Why then did Turlock voters last week defeat a half-cent sales tax intended to get Turlock roads back into shape?
It's not rocket science. Given how the economy in the Valley has not taken off like the rest of the nation and jobs and wages are still suffering, it's about voters wanting to protect their pocketbook. Voters are simply not wild about raising taxes in this county, except for a quarter-cent library tax that flies every time.
But it could be about a sadly uninformed electorate. I'll get to that in a moment.
Why should Ceres voters give a flip about what happened in Turlock last week? Two reasons.
The Turlock defeat is a bellwether that underscores the difficulty of passing a countywide transportation measure in 2016. Remember, a tax like this must receive a two-thirds majority - not an easy task to pull off. As it appears, voters in the county may be asked on Nov. 8, 2016 to hike sales tax in the county by an additional half cent. Imagine cutting a penny in half and it seems like a trivial piece of metal but voters are thinking how it adds up. For example, the purchase of a $600 television will cost an $3 extra with the road tax. A $4,000 hot tub gets $20 more expensive. The purchase of a $20,000 car would be an additional $100 in tax. All this at a time when household incomes are dropping in the country.
But it also doesn't make sense to vote against a tax designed to protect the roads we all need for travel. Just as it makes no sense to skip regular dental visits because of cost and failing to change the oil in your car to save money. Such deferred maintenance will only lead to greater expense and pain later. The same is true of roads. Slurry sealing of streets is cheaper than expensive road overlays. To do that government needs money. State and federal gas tax funds are not keeping up with new projects and pavement management. In the 2012 state Transportation Improvement Program approved by the California Transportation Commission, StanCOG was allocated $25 million. In 2014 that amount fell to $13 million.
Carlos Yazmon, executive director of the Stanislaus Council of Governments (StanCOG), said a half-cent sales tax would generate $970 million over a 25-year period. The entire amount would be spent on our transportation system. Not one penny to Sacramento!
Secondly, what happened in Turlock could have had a negative effect when leaders attempt to sway voters to go along with a countywide half-cent sales tax in 2016. Voters in the county's third largest city would have probably been confused come 2016. The plan hatched was that if Turlock had passed its own sales tax hike for roads in 2014 and the countywide tax passed in 2016, the Turlock tax would have gone away. But how many voters in Turlock would have trusted - or understood - that to happen? It would have muddied the waters and confused the electorate which already tends to have trouble understanding ballot measures.
Turlock's support is needed for a countywide tax when you view each community as a voting bloc. Those in government circles have said Oakdale is the reason that the last two attempts to get a road tax passed in the county failed. Perhaps because Oakdale enjoys better roads, and is a wealthier and more conservative community and conservatives are resistant to tax increases.
Some interesting data can be extrapolated from last week's Turlock vote for Measure B. The Turlock road tax vote needed a two-thirds majority for passage and the 5,795 "yes" votes translated to a 61.02 percent support level. That's high but not high enough to meet the 66.6 percent plus one vote threshold for passage. (The measure received 3,702 votes, or 38.98 percent). Another 474 more "yes" voters would have been needed for passage. However, an astounding 400 Turlock residents who voted didn't vote on this measure. No doubt they didn't vote on Measure B because they had no idea what it was about so they merely glossed over it. What that tells me is that any PR campaign to pass any future tax must do a better job of reaching out to the public.
There was talk of running a transportation tax this year. Earlier this year StanCOG's 16-member policy board - made up of county and city officials like Ceres City Councilman Mike Kline -aborted those plans after a consultant looked at polling data and suggested it would fall short as did the ones in 2006 and 2008. The board's thinking switched to placing it on the 2016 presidential ballot. That gives leaders more time to "educate" and besides it may have a better chance of passage during a presidential election since they tend to draw younger voters who have less cynical views towards taxes. Interestingly, support for a road 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.
Yazmon and others feel, if handled properly, the tax can win approval in 2016. After all, the 2008 measure failed by a mere 175 votes (66.42 percent) and in 2006 Measure K failed in a 57.82 percent to 42.08 percent outcome. Consider that in the 2008 election, 7,390 voters opted out of a decision when they came to that spot on the ballot, a huge chunk of apathy.
Voters need to be convinced WHY they need to support the tax.
It's not just about road condition, although pavement quality is tangibly important.
The tax would infuse an estimated $456 million over 25 years for the county and the nine cities to spend on road maintenance. Ceres' share would be $1.26 million each year for the 25 years. A recent study concluded that Ceres should be spending $2.2 million annually on street maintenance but only spends $400,000. Remember, gas tax monies are dwindling and asphalt prices have increased eight-fold since 1999.
In a recent pavement study, Ceres rated an overall 69, or just beneath "good" condition on a scale of 1 being worst and 100 being perfect. That number will slip quickly without more money. City Manager Toby Wells stresses the importance of maintaining streets through slurry seal to avoid more expensive fixes later.
The conditions of the roads in Hughson have a better rating of 82, by contrast.
The tax would also help the region build some important road projects. An estimated $31 million could be channeled into the Service/Mitchell Highway 99 interchange. There's also improving the Highway 132 corridor from Waterford to the San Joaquin County line, and West Main Avenue from Highway 99 to I-5 in Patterson.
Ceres would also receive $116,000 per year for bike and pedestrian projects. It would generate $349 million for "door through door" transportation services for seniors and disabled.
The tax would also help the region generate $1.8 million per year to help develop the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) commuter train that will ultimately run from San Jose, over the Altamont Pass to Merced. The extension of the ACE train into Stanislaus and Merced counties, say proponents, would help improve the economy.
Icing on the cake for passage would be that Stanislaus County would become a "self-help" county that would enable it to leverage for state and federal tax dollars. Nineteen counties in the state are self-help counties. Tulare County, for example, taxed itself to generate $49 million but leveraged to receive $200 million in matching funds in state transportation funds. San Joaquin County turned its locally generated $407 million into $740 million.
What Stanislaus County voters will be asked to do in 2016 is not out of the ordinary. In fact, 81 percent of all Californians pay a special road tax in their county.
Our streets are crumbling because we cannot afford to keep up with their maintenance. Roads in the county were scored at 55 in a recent report released by the League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties. The same report notes that 6,032 miles of streets will need $2.6 billion in repairs in the next decade.
I'm a conservative and don't like new taxes but it seems to me that a special tax for roads has the most direct effect on our lives. It's our cars that take the brunt of potholes and our clogged roads make us late for appointments. We can do something about it. Educate yourself and mention it to your neighbor, should they be one of the three in 10 voters who bother to vote. It's coming up in two years.
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