SALIDA -- The perception that this town's fate is being debated by someone else doesn't sit well with some residents.
"It seems like we're left out there, having to watch other people decide what's happening to us and no one's coming to us," said Marty McAteer.
He referred to votes last week by Modesto and Stanislaus County leaders to commission a $60,000 financial study on Modesto absorbing Salida. A Sacramento firm is expected to lay out options after crunching numbers not talking with the folks most affected by the idea.
"I'm guessing 75 percent of Salida is unaware," resident Jim Bonetti said. "The other 25 percent are pissed off."
Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh touched a nerve in March when, soon after taking office, he raised the idea of annexing Salida without approaching people here first. Some Salidans showed up at Marsh's town hall meeting last weekend at Beyer High School, and he patiently laid out his reasons:
"We need the land to bring jobs," the mayor said. Modesto doesn't have much to offer companies looking for large sites near Highway 99; Salida does.
However, Salida's homes cost about $3 million more a year in government services parks and public safety, for instance than property tax generates. The county might initially pay the city $2.7 million a year to assume that burden, decreasing by a set amount over some 10 years, Marsh suggested.
Instead of being represented by one elected supervisor with attention diluted by an entire county, Salida might get its own Modesto council member, or share one with a section of northwest Modesto, Marsh said. Someday, Modesto's mayor even could come from Salida, he added.
"They would have a much clearer voice," Marsh said.
Since Salida's fire department merged with Modesto's and the county fire warden's office last year, "that takes out one of the big issues," Marsh said. Others note that, years ago, the city took over a water district serving Salida, and Gregori High School is run by Modesto City Schools.
Regarding law enforcement, "I would guarantee much superior police coverage than what they have today," provided by the county Sheriff's Department, the mayor said.
Some Salidans appreciate that logic.
"It makes sense to me," said Michael Clarke. "By itself, Salida does not have much in services; it's just too small. (Annexation) is the way to go."
Decades ago, Clarke lived in a neighborhood swallowed by Seattle, but everyone continued using its original name. "If we're concerned about retaining identity, we could be the Salida district of Modesto," he said.
Dream of cityhood
Some would argue that Salida has had more than enough chances to determine its destiny.
Talk of cityhood has come up at various times for at least four dec-ades. With 13,700 residents, Salida is by far the largest unincorporated community in the county, with more people than three of its cities (Newman, Hughson and Waterford).
The bottom line tax money always has dampened that dream. Five years ago, county leaders figured to position Salida for incorporation by adopting an ambitious growth plan that envisioned a huge shopping center and industrial parks with 30,000 jobs, as well as 4,500 homes, but the vision evaporated when the economy sank.
Several Salida leaders promoted that developer-backed effort, known as Salida Now, and asked for a countywide vote. Instead, a majority of county leaders simply adopted its provisions; some people recall the end-run with bitterness, and current annexation talk with skepticism.
"We didn't get a chance to vote on Salida Now," McAteer said. "That was done behind closed doors. We've got to pay attention now so they don't do the same thing."
Don Murphy, a Salida Now proponent, holds fast to the hope of self-determination. Becoming a corner of Modesto is not the answer, he said.
"The reason we don't have sales tax revenue is because Modesto controls the water," Murphy said. Land that houses Costco, Lowe's and Save Mart's flagship used to be considered Salida but was annexed to Modesto as a condition for water service, he and others said.
"(Salida residents) are shopping at (Vintage Faire) Mall and Costco and McHenry Village because we have no place to spend money here," Murphy continued. "Marsh is already getting our sales tax dollars. If the county is stupid enough to let him get away with demanding revenue sharing, it will just make it harder to run other unincorporated portions of the county."
Tom Burns, a Salida fire board member, agreed that Modesto's water control has made it impossible for Salida to realize its destiny. He said he's withholding judgment on annexation, however, until the study is finished later this year.
Thomas Reeves of the Salida Municipal Advisory Council, which provides recommendations to elected county leaders, agrees.
"Whether Modesto annexes Salida or Salida stays the same or becomes incorporated, we need the details. The only way we're going to know how much it costs or what services will be like is to do these studies," he said.
Said Burns: "I do know that if the city comes in with institutional arrogance, saying, 'We're the big boys on the block; we'll show you how it's done; let us do things our way; stay out of our way' that will not fly."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2390.