Turlock tables push to aid roads with tax

mrowland@modbee.comJuly 9, 2013 

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— Turlock City Council members have tabled talk of a road tax, stepping aside to allow a countywide effort at a regional transportation ballot measure to go forward.

After holding four public forums on the topic of the city's pothole-strewn streets and the possibility of a sales or parcel tax to pay for their maintenance, the council Tuesday night abandoned its efforts to put any such measure on the November ballot. The short 15-minute discussion, after months of conversation by council and community members on the same topic, centered on giving a Stanislaus County-led transportation tax approach time to come together.

"I don't think a countywide tax is off the table at this point," said Councilman Forrest White, who is a member of the Stanislaus Council of Governments policy board. "The devil is in the details, how much and how it's delineated. I think it's tough, but I'd like to give (county) execs one last chance to sort everything out."

The decision to not move forward with a tax came after Mayor John Lazar led a major push to improve Turlock's ailing and often-

complained-about streets. Lazar made a road tax one of his priorities in his State of the City address and previously had favored a citywide approach to raising the $8 million needed annually for maintenance.

But at the meeting, Lazar said he would respect the pressure from the county supervisors and chamber leaders who all are pushing for a regional ballot measure.

"I was an advocate of moving it forward this November. I think the timing is right. I don't think there is anything wrong in putting it on the ballot and letting the citizens of Turlock decide whether they want this or not," he said. "But with respect to the county and the mayors and the stakeholders and the chambers, I think it's a useful conversation. I appreciate the opportunity to be a lightning rod on this issue."

Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors Chairman Vito Chiesa attended the meeting and spoke briefly about his hopes for a regional transportation tax that would fund major infrastructure projects as well as give money to individual cities.

Chiesa has been a vocal advocate for a half-cent sales tax to fund major projects including a proposed Highway 132 corridor. He echoed his beliefs that the project would benefit the entire county, including Turlock residents.

"Give us an opportunity, let Forrest and I continue to beat this," said Chiesa, who is also the chairman of StanCOG. "I think when you look at regional economic development, the single biggest thing the government can do for people is a transportation system."

Council members Amy Bublak and Bill DeHart agreed with the wait-and-see approach and said more specifics of how and where the tax would be spent had to be hammered out. Bublak said the relatively small number of people who attended the public forums — almost 75 in total — indicated a lack of support for a road tax.

"That's not a significant outburst of, 'You know what, I want to pay for this,' " she said. "Yeah, something has to happen, but I don't think the answer is the sales tax, especially not at this time."

Councilman Steven Nascimento was not present at the meeting and did not take part in the conversation. While no vote was taken, members agreed verbally to not instruct staff to look into a ballot measure. The prospect of one in the future, however, was left open.

"This council will be faced with this issue again because streets and roads will not be repaired in this town," Lazar said. "We will continue to have potholed, substandard streets for a community that is flourishing in my view. We shouldn't expect anything less than superior roads and streets."

Also on the agenda was another controversial city versus county issue, this time over the disposal of solid waste. The council unanimously approved a plan to dump Turlock's solid waste with the Merced County Regional Waste Management Authority for a 120-day trial period.

Previously the city's solid waste went to the Stanislaus County Waste to Energy facility or landfill.

The change greatly reduces the city's disposal fees, saving up to $750,000 annually.

Stanislaus County Assistant Chief Executive Officer Keith Boggs spoke against the plan, which he said could harm the county and surrounding cities. County Chief Executive Officer Monica Nino also sent the council a letter against the plan Monday.

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2284. Follow her on www.twitter.com/turlocknow.

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