Stanislaus road tax plan ready for public input

Details out on measure to improve transit in county

June 10, 2008 

Finer points to a $700 million road tax spending plan have been unveiled and will go before transportation officials Wednesday.

If approved this week, the plan will serve as bedrock for a Stanislaus County vote in November to use proceeds of a higher sales tax on hundreds of road projects, specific and otherwise.

The plan also spells out creation of a citizens advisory committee and provisions for bonding, leveraging other transportation dollars and future amendments to the all-important list of targeted projects. Officials hope details will sway at least two-thirds of voters to approve the half-cent sales tax increase.

Stanislaus Taxpayers Association leaders say proposed language offers too much wiggle room that transportation officials could manipulate to favor regional projects at the expense of neighborhood roads. Also, some cities have done a poor job of describing how their share of tax proceeds would be used, critics say.

A similar effort, Measure K, failed in 2006. The new measure hasn't been assigned a letter name but will be subtitled the "Stanislaus County Better Roads-Safer Streets Program," according to an ordinance to be reviewed by Stanislaus Council of Governments policy board members.

"It's going to end up being a positive message," said Modesto's Kirk Lindsey, preferring to call the vote a "transportation initiative" to get away from negative images associated with the word "tax." Lindsey, a trucking executive and a member of the California Transportation Commission, has become an advocate for the measure.

Paul Van Konynenburg, board chairman of the Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance, has been busy encouraging people to voice support at this week's meeting.

Related items to be voted on Wednesday:

  • An expenditure plan

  • First reading of ballot language

  • Hiring an outreach consultant

  • Spending $175,000 to survey transit needs of senior and disabled passengers

    The spending plan, supporters say, describes projects in enough detail to win over voters. "What We Will Do" reads a subtitle on the fourth of 36 pages.

    Forty-nine percent, or about $343 million, would be used to build or upgrade three major east-west corridors, one each in the north, center and south parts of the county. One percent, or $7 million, would be reserved for administrative costs.

    Details on the other half of all proceeds, or $350 million, only recently became available and are a compilation of projects put forth by the county and its nine cities. But each decided on its own approach, resulting in some proposals with fine detail and others with very little.

    For example, Waterford specifies how it would use 96 percent of its money, but Modesto details spending for only 25 percent of its share.

    "Some people say we should trust government," said Dave Thomas, co-chairman of the taxpayers association. "We don't think there is any evidence that that's a good idea."

    Eric Reimer, the other co-chairman, is more concerned that the money due cities will end up there.

    Nothing in proposed ballot language guarantees that tax proceeds would not be "held" by StanCOG for bonding on the larger regional corridors, leaving cities with a fraction of amounts now being used to promote the road tax, Reimer said. He sent letters last month and Monday to elected officials throughout the county.

    StanCOG director Vince Harris said such bonding information is misleading. Depending on economic conditions that vary from month to month, he and Lindsey said, bonds can save money by locking in costs that otherwise would escalate, and could allow for earlier completion.

    Reimer proposes an amendment clearly separating into two accounts proceeds for regional projects and for local projects, which he said would sway him to support the road tax. He and Thomas said they previously urged tighter language but apparently were ignored in the proposed ordinance. Taxpayer association members have not had time to consider it, as ballot language was released late last week, they said.

    "We're not looking forward to a fight," Thomas said.

    If voters approve the measure in November, each city and the county would appoint one member to a citizens advisory committee, each serving a four-year term without pay. Members essentially would audit projects paid for with tax proceeds.

    StanCOG, composed of elected leaders throughout the county, would wield spending power in annual votes and could make changes with two-thirds approval of the policy board.

    On another front, a search for consulting help attracted only one bid, from Martino Graphics Design Inc., a Modesto firm. That satisfied a demand by StanCOG leaders who criticized an out-of-town company behind the failed Measure K two years ago, and Martino will sublet work to other local firms such as Jeff Broome Photography, Gowans Printing and Pathways.

    Their main focus is producing 300,000 campaign mailers, half of which would be sent mid-July and the rest in early August.

    Lastly, StanCOG appears to be making good on a promise to people with special needs by setting aside money to study transit for them in its next fiscal year, starting July 1.

    Senior and disabled advocates, who had supported Measure K in 2006, were miffed this time when transportation officials carved out no money for such transit. But leaders say they can redirect other funds after documenting the need.

    Wednesday's meeting is scheduled to start at 6 p.m. in the basement chamber at Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St., Modesto.

    Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.

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