Elected leaders throughout Stanislaus County will consider asking voters again for a road tax.
The idea is sure to stir debate between people hoping to boost the county's economic future and those unwilling to put further strain on struggling residents.
Possible pushes by Modesto and Turlock to raise taxes in those two cities for public safety and transportation, respectively, could further complicate things.
Previous countywide road tax campaigns in 2006 and 2008 won majority support but failed to capture the required two-thirds approval, or 66.67 percent. The latter fell short by a mere 0.25 percent out of 155,535 votes, and leaders have been waiting for the right time to make another run.
It might come quicker than some think, with a supermajority in the state Legislature controlled by Democrats, who often are more receptive to tax increases. A bill introduced on the first day of the current session would lower the threshold for transportation taxes to 55 percent.
Both local campaigns would have cleared that bar. Measure K in 2006 captured 57.92 percent, improving to 66.42 percent with Measure S in 2008.
"We need to be prepared," said county Supervisor Vito Chiesa. At Wednesday night's meeting of the Stanislaus Council of Governments, he asked for a discussion at the agency's Jan. 16 meeting.
StanCOG, composed of elected leaders from the county and its nine cities, could form a committee to explore options.
The county's two largest cities, aware of the potential rule changes in Sacramento, are angling as well. Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh gathered comments at a community meeting last week for a plan he's creating to boost public safety, likely relying on additional taxes.
Turlock City Manager Roy Wasden said he plans to bring a Turlock-only road tax discussion to the City Council by April. Options include land or sales surtaxes, or forming an assessment district that could encompass the entire city. A half-cent sales tax boost could add $5 million a year to Turlock's road maintenance budget of $1 million to $2 million, he said.
Wasden said plans could change if a countywide effort gains traction. Turlock Mayor John Lazar says he wants all ideas on the table. "We certainly want to work together regionally," Lazar said. "If we can't realize that, we have to take care of our own."
Ceres and Oakdale voters previously approved higher taxes for public safety.
County 'took a haircut'
Organizers of the 2008 countywide road tax campaign drew praise for assembling widespread business and political support. But negotiations left county Supervisor Jim DeMartini with a bitter memory, he said, because the county agreed to take less money just to cobble together enough support to qualify the measure for the ballot.
"We had to cut special deals because the cities were squabbling about what they would get and the county took a haircut in the deal," said DeMartini, who surprised some by backing Measure S. "If we have to go through that again, I'm not going to support it."
Modesto Councilman Dave Geer, also a StanCOG member, said he sees bigger problems if legislators alter rules and multiple local agencies crowd ballots with tax hike proposals.
"I'm worried about piling on," Geer said. He said he will withhold judgment until Sacramento and Washington, D.C., lawmakers show their hands, but said, "I frankly don't see the public going for imposing more taxes on themselves."
California voters, despite doldrums in the economy, approved Gov. Jerry Brown's statewide Proposition 30 tax increases in November. And voters across the state were more willing to embrace local tax measures: Of 240 such measures on the November ballot, 171 passed, a success rate of 71 percent.
"It seems the public is inclined to support things that stay in their community," Wasden said.
Backers must clearly describe what the money would buy to gain widespread support, said Bob Benedetti, a political science professor at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. "They need to be projects that a lot of people feel are important," he said.
The 2008 Stanislaus measure might have raised $700 million in 20 years, with half going to neighborhood roads and half to future freeways in the north, central and southern parts of the county. The half-cent sales tax bump would have raised the cost of a $10 item by 5 cents, or by 50 cents for a $100 item.
Dollars stretch only so far
Leaders would have to overcome tax fatigue, said Jack Heinsius, a Modesto Junior College instructor. "It seems every time you turn around, somebody is saying, 'We desperately need this,' and they become competing (measures)," he said.
County Supervisor Bill O'Brien said he sees both sides. The county and its cities have missed out on untold millions of dollars by not having a road tax to lev-erage additional state and federal transportation funds, but it's clear that many families continue to struggle, he said.
"There is only so much money," O'Brien said. "What's most important?"
Business leaders recently revived a transportation committee in the Modesto Chamber of Commerce and would take interest in another push, said Ralph Curtis, board president. The well-being of roads "is extremely important to the economic vitality of our community," he said.
The Stanislaus Council of Governments is scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. Jan. 16 in the agency's third-floor boardroom, 1111 I St., Modesto.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2390.