July 2, 2008

Stanislaus County road tax swerves a little

The mostly smooth process of putting another road tax on the Stanislaus County ballot hit a chuckhole Tuesday when county Supervisor Dick Monteith voted against one of the procedural steps.

Monteith said he was denied details of a public opinion survey on the half-cent tax and charged that withholding the information would hurt efforts to establish credibility with the public.

The Board of Supervisors, on a 4-1 vote, approved a plan for spending $700 million in road tax money over 20 years, clearing the way for a board decision in August on whether to put the measure on the November ballot.

Road tax supporters have sought unanimous support from the county and its nine cities for moving forward with the half-cent sales tax measure, which would raise money for local traffic improvements and regional corridors.

But all has not been smooth.

Last month, Turlock officials raised concerns about the ordinance language concerning corridor spending allocations at a Stanislaus Council of Governments meeting, before the issue was resolved. Then Monteith erupted at Tuesday's county board meeting.

Monteith said he had been denied access to a poll done in May on the road tax proposal. Supporters of the road tax hired a research firm to conduct the survey.

"It is beyond comprehension that anyone would ask the board to support this without providing that information and absolutely refusing to do it," he said.

Monteith said he wanted to scrutinize the wording of the survey to determine if the questions were designed to coax positive responses from the public.

He charged that Supervisor Jeff Grover twice in the past week refused to give him a copy of the poll.

He first asked Grover for it at the close of the June 24 board meeting, he said, adding that Grover declined to give his secretary a copy before Monday's StanCOG meeting and refused him a copy prior to the board meeting Tuesday morning.

"His comment was he didn't own it, so he would not give it to me or anyone else," Monteith said.

Grover replied that he had offered the polling results to county board members and was unable to meet with Monteith last week because of an out-of-town trip. Grover said he had only a summary of the results, not the survey itself.

After Tuesday's meeting adjourned, Grover said the survey wasn't his to give away. To obtain more details on the survey, he said, Monteith needed to talk with the group that commissioned it. Grover said the survey was funded from money left over from the Yes on Measure K road tax campaign in 2006.

Monteith stressed that he supports the road tax, but said the poll would tell the board whether there is enough public support to justify the expense of a ballot measure. A similar measure failed to get the required 67 percent approval in 2006.

The May 1-8 telephone survey of 812 registered voters throughout Stanislaus County was arranged by Paul Van Konynenburg and other members of Stanislaus Taxpayers for Traffic Relief. The results were published in The Bee on May 27.

According to the survey, support for the road tax ranged from 58 percent to 71 percent after survey respondents were given pro and con arguments.

Grover said he believes the survey accurately reflects public sentiment on the road tax. He said he surmises the road tax has a solid base of 58 percent support -- the same percentage that voted "yes" in 2006 -- and that proponents still need to work to convince undecided voters.

Monteith and Van Konynenburg were scheduled to discuss the survey Tuesday afternoon.

Vince Harris, executive director of StanCOG, said the council of governments had nothing to do with preparing the survey. He said that despite concerns raised in recent weeks, the plan is supported by local jurisdictions.

"We have already gone to seven of the nine city councils and we have received approval of the expense plan by all seven," he said. "I view this as extremely good support."

Oakdale has not given approval, and the Patterson council was scheduled to consider it Tuesday night.

The spending plan includes $350 million for local traffic improvements and maintenance, $343 million for three regional east-west corridors in the north, central and southern parts of the county, and $7 million for administration.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or 578-2321.

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