MODESTO — A few months ago, Stanislaus County supervisors decided against asking voters to approve a so-called self-help road tax, as least for the time being.
Self-help counties receive matching funds from the state. Cross over into San Joaquin County and you'll see roads, bridges and bypasses under construction. People working. The future happening.
Not here, though. Stanislaus County voters have rejected such measures before, most recently in 2008 by a handful of votes shy of the 66.67 percent needed to pass.
So close and yet .
So why not try again?
Because voters say they're already paying too much in taxes and getting too little in return. And because officials in both Modesto and Turlock are considering asking voters to approve new taxes later this year.
The Modesto Police Department has 125 fewer officers and nonsworn employees than it did in 2008. Fire staffing is down, too. So the city hired a consulting firm that polled residents to see how they felt about either a half-cent sales tax for public safety only or a penny for general purposes, including parks, roads and public safety. The consultant claims numbers show voters would support either.
I'm always skeptical of commissioned surveys, probably because I've participated in phone surveys that turned out to be nothing more than "push polls" geared toward specific agendas.
Likewise, Councilwoman Stephanie Burnside questioned the scope of the survey and the small sampling size (400). The city hasn't released the survey questions.
"I would like to see the verbiage they used so that we can make an informed decision," she said.
Turlock officials, meanwhile, are sympathetic to the county's desire to build major highways and expressways. They just don't want to wait to patch their own crumbling pavement. They're trial-ballooning a parcel tax or half-cent sales tax.
If you live in Turlock and you know your front-end alignment technician on a first-name basis, which are you more likely to favor a countywide tax for highways north and west of Modesto? A major project that might benefit Turlock's industry and economy? Or to get your potholes filled and save your shock absorbers?
If you live in Modesto, would you rather have more cops and firefighters or an expressway north of town leading to Oakdale and on to the Sierra?
Add to the mix Oakdale, where a general fund tax used for public safety is set to expire in 2015. Leaders there could ask taxpayers to renew it.
Vito Chiesa the strongest self-help tax proponent among the county supervisors met Thursday with the mayors of Turlock, Waterford, Patterson, Hughson and Ceres, along with chamber of commerce officials from some of those cities.
Chiesa is convinced that better highways and expressways will benefit everyone by attracting businesses that will put people to work.
Self-help, he says, would bring in the matching state money to finally build the North County Corridor bypass, a mirage since the concept first was broached in 1954.
It would pay to rebuild Highway 132, which would benefit Modesto and the West Side, and Turlock to some degree.
And it would improve Turlock's industrial climate by developing an east-west corridor in the south half of the county.
Without it, other areas of the state, including neighboring counties, get our tax dollars to build their roads.
Instead of building major roadways here, our local tax dollars also flow to Los Angeles, where some new retaining walls crumpled along a freeway before the project could be completed, adding $100 million to the original $1 billion cost.
Here, cities' short-term struggles outweigh a long-term strategy geared toward economic development. That's part of what leaders discussed last week.
"It was a good dialogue," Chiesa said of the meeting. "A free-flowing discussion. It reminded me of how difficult it is to get something passed countywide. Turlock wants to go forward. Everyone knows their roads are in disrepair. It comes down to what's regional and what's local."
Chiesa believes the leaders can find solutions, such as pro-rating the money available for cities and county projects.
"The more equity to that, the better the chance of people buying in," he said.
Possibly. But he admittedly can't get his fellow supervisors on board, either. Maybe if Modesto and Turlock weren't competing, a road tax would pass in 2014.
Ultimately, it comes down to how much more in taxes people are willing to pay and who gets to them first. The cities will win that battle if they put their measures on the Nov. 5 ballot.
The countywide tax could lose again, this time without even going to the voters.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at email@example.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.