Stanislaus leaders consider giving transportation tax another try in November

Cracks in the pavement can be seen here at K and 9th Streets in Modesto, Tuesday.  Some officials are looking to a transportation sales tax for money to fix such problems.
Cracks in the pavement can be seen here at K and 9th Streets in Modesto, Tuesday. Some officials are looking to a transportation sales tax for money to fix such problems. Modesto Bee

Voters throughout Stanislaus County might see another version of a transportation sales tax on the November ballot, if elected supporters manage to climb a significant mountain before a fast-approaching deadline.

The measure likely would be similar to Measure K, the half-cent hike that would have provided millions of dollars for road projects but failed in November 2006.

Tricky details must be ironed out quickly by politicians representing the county and its nine cities, some of whom are openly skeptical. High-stake negotiations will be handled in several special meetings before Feb. 13, when members of the Stanislaus Council of Governments' policy board must sign off to qualify for a countywide vote this fall.

"It's a lot to do," said StanCOG Director Vince Harris, "but we're on the right road."

Members of StanCOG's policy board last week appeared to agree pitching to voters a 20-year lifetime for the sales tax boost, instead of the 30 years cited in the unsuccessful Measure K. And more money likely would be shifted to cities for filling potholes and new asphalt as opposed to regional projects such as interchanges on Highway 99.

But a host of other disputed terms is causing jolts and bumps, most stemming from disagreement on how to divide the extra money and which regional priorities to spend it on.

And members of Turlock's council, the second largest of the nine cities after Modesto, laid down an ultimatum based on their preference before StanCOG members even decided to fast-track a November measure. Some representatives of other agencies bristle at the idea of one city dictating terms of a measure meant to benefit everyone in Stanislaus County.

"Whatever the formula (for sharing proceeds), there can't be a 'take-it-or-leave-it' attitude," said county Supervisor Jim DeMartini.

'Took everyone by surprise'

The idea alone -- to push a second transportation sales tax increase in two years -- caught many StanCOG members flat-footed last week when it surfaced despite no specific mention on their agenda.

"It took everyone by surprise," said Janice Keating, one of Modesto's representatives to the transportation agency. "I don't like to be broadsided."

Harris mentioned the issue while recapping a December retreat, sparking a lengthy, lively discussion among policy board members who directed Harris to do whatever possible to place a new transportation tax on the November ballot.

Harris on Monday said he has tentatively scheduled a Friday meeting with the county's nine city managers and County Chief Executive Officer Rick Robinson. It would be closed to the public, Harris said.

Assuming they agree on terms for the measure, the agencies likely would schedule special meetings to obtain buy-in from their respective elected officials.

If agencies representing a majority of the county's population agree, Harris would brief StanCOG policy board members in an emergency meeting to be held before the panel's regular Feb. 13 meeting. That would provide just enough time to pull together technical documents, including an environmental study, for final policy board review in July to meet an August county election deadline, said StanCOG attorney DeeAnne Gillick.

Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour, also a StanCOG policy board member, said it's now or never.

"If we don't do it this year, forget it," Ridenour said.

Cities considering sales tax

Some cities are considering putting individual sales tax hikes before their voters in 2009, and another countywide measure would have to wait until the next year.

Logic suggests that voters paying a higher transportation sales tax won't saddle themselves with another.

"If cities go it alone, it's going to kill any countywide issue," said Hughson Councilman Stephen Qualls.

Without piggy-backing this fall, a special election later could cost more than $600,000 -- also a hard sell.

Turlock officials make no excuse for pursuing a tax hike for their city, given repeated failures at a regional level. Voters throughout the county rejected a similar half-cent measure in 1988; 58 percent voted "yes" on Measure K in 2006, but passage required 66.7 percent and it failed as well.

Merced County voters gave similar measures the same treatment twice in 2006.

Voters in San Joaquin County, by contrast, approved a tax hike in 1990 and extended it in 2006, helping to secure many millions of dollars for road and transit projects. Such "self-help" counties find it easier to attract state and federal money, which often requires a local "matching" contribution.

In a last effort for Turlock to be a team player, Councilman Ted Howze said he brokered a tentative deal with County Supervisor Jeff Grover for a countywide tax that would throw more money Turlock's way. Instead of dividing a portion of proceeds based on population, the form-ula could be skewed toward areas with higher sales tax proceeds.

Also, Turlock wants some money for regional priorities dedicated to widening West Main Street, linking its new industrial park to communities on the west side of Stanislaus County, where officials hope to build a 4,800-acre business park near Crows Landing.

Turlock Mayor John Lazar downplayed that angle, saying he prefers to focus on providing direct access to Interstate 5. He said he's committed to a Turlock-only measure in 2009 if StanCOG can't build consensus for a countywide vote this year.

"We all need to be flexible and bend a little," Lazar said. But "any deviation (from Turlock's ultimatum), I would need to bring back to see if my council will support it. We're looking out for our own needs as well."

Meanwhile, cities with lackluster retail centers, such as Waterford, would receive less money under the Turlock plan.

"You could have a special meeting every night for the next six weeks and negotiate," said Bill Bassitt, chief executive officer of the Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance. "But every time you shift a number, a different city is getting screwed."

Bassitt, a major player behind the last measure, said no one has approached him about the renewed effort.

How to get the vote to pass

In a debriefing after the 2006 vote failed, Bassitt's team determined that success would be more likely if backers would take the time to carefully address opponents' concerns, and transfer major responsibility for a new push from politicians to regular people on a grass-roots committee. The current effort -- led exclusively by elected officials -- ignores that advice, Bassitt noted.

"It's all speculative, as far as I'm concerned," he said.

Many representatives -- Keating, DeMartini, Ceres Mayor Anthony Cannella and Newman Mayor John Fantazia -- said all agencies desperately need new transportation dollars. But all acknowledged significant obstacles just to setting a fall countywide vote, underlined by the time crunch.

"It's not insurmountable, but I think the division is great enough now that I don't realistically see how we can do it for the November ballot," DeMartini said.

"I hate to see us set ourselves up for failure by not giving ourselves enough time to complete this," Keating said.

Bassitt said, "In the meantime, our roads continue to deteriorate, and we don't get an east-west corridor and we don't solve our congestion problems. And (November) may well represent our last hope to get this tax passed."

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.