Cities, county try again for road tax; Newman, Riverbank, Turlock to weigh in

Street Maintenance crewman Pete Jonson picking up orange safety cones after job  on Orangeburg Ave, Thursday afternoon. Water from the vibrating compactor spills onto the hot asphalt creating steam. The City of Modesto says it filled 27,704 potholes last year. Now there is a new hot line for reporting potholes, and, if the city judges the pothole serious enough, the reported hole will be filled within 24 hours.
Street Maintenance crewman Pete Jonson picking up orange safety cones after job on Orangeburg Ave, Thursday afternoon. Water from the vibrating compactor spills onto the hot asphalt creating steam. The City of Modesto says it filled 27,704 potholes last year. Now there is a new hot line for reporting potholes, and, if the city judges the pothole serious enough, the reported hole will be filled within 24 hours. Modesto Bee

They managed to avoid bone-jarring potholes and negotiate dangerous curves on a perilous drive up a steep hill.

Good work, so far. But the real mountain lies ahead.

The hill: nine city managers and Stanislaus County's top administrator devising, then agreeing on, a new proposal for a countywide sales tax increase for better roads and smoother-flowing traffic. And persuading six city councils to go along. All in less than one month.

The mountain: convincing voters throughout the county that it's essential to raise the tax.

Supporters would have until November, marking two years since a similar push failed to convert two-thirds of voters.

They'll hold off on shifting into overdrive for the mountain ahead. If any of three city councils yet to consider the issue backs away in the next two days, the whole deal falls apart. And one of those councils -- Turlock's -- presents a particularly independent-minded wild card.

The mood among many participants, given their dizzying success in the past four weeks, is upbeat. They are crossing fingers in anticipation of smiles and handshakes at Wednesday's milestone meeting of their regional transportation agency, the Stanislaus Council of Governments.

"(The tax hike) has a slim chance now, if all the stars align," Oakdale Mayor Farrell Jackson said. "But everyone believes if we have even one city on the outside, it won't have a chance at all."

That's an interesting perspective from the leader of the

only city that refused to endorse Measure K in 2006, when nearly 58 percent of the county's voters agreed to a higher sales tax -- less than the 66.7 percent needed for passage.

Things are different now. For example, Oakdale's leaders are on board.

Also, supporters are ditching the out-of-town expert they hired before, who they think provided bad advice by urging elected officials to distance themselves from the issue. They endorsed the plan but did not actively campaign.

They've shortened the higher tax's lifetime, from 30 years to 20.

Roads throughout the county continue to deteriorate, and traffic is stacking up. That's got to mean something when voters check their ballots come November, the theory goes.

And between now and then, voters would examine a different set of promises on how the extra money would be spent:

FOCUS ON LOCAL ROADS -- The 2006 wish list was heavy on regional projects, reserving nearly 66 percent of proceeds. The current list cuts that to half, significantly boosting the share available for each city to fix and improve neighborhood streets.

Also, the old list showed upgrades to seven interchanges on Highway 99 and Interstate 5. Critics said those projects are the state's responsibility. The current plan shows improvements to only one interchange in Ceres.

FOCUS ON EAST-WEST CORRIDORS -- Each of three regional projects would receive about $117 million, one each in the north, center and south parts of the county.

A south county dream to improve the path from Turlock to Interstate 5 is this year's major addition to the 2006 plan. Turlock's future industrial park stands to gain much. But critics of Gerry Kamilos' vision of developing a gargantuan business park near Crows Landing say the tax increase is little more than a veiled subsidy.

County officials still hope to widen State Route 219, or Kiernan Avenue, from Highway 99 to the northeast part of the county. But since 2006, they've consolidated support from Modesto, Riverbank and Oakdale and now show a new stretch of expressway, an extension of Kiernan, linking to Highway 108 near Lovers Leap.

A third east-west plan, to improve Highway 132, remains on the books. A last-minute nod to Ceres, however, would take nearly one-fourth of the central corridor's money to rebuild 99's interchange at Service and Mitchell roads.

Change in distribution key

Changing the projects list should help to win over many voters, supporters say.

But to get to this point, they had to change the money-distribution formula -- to make officials happy. And that might be the most impressive feat of the past month.

The key, most agree, was softening big brother's heart. County leaders preliminarily agreed to several concessions to keep the deal from unraveling.

Obstacles included whether to split proceeds by population, sales tax or share of road miles. Choosing any one would favor some cities and anger others.

County leaders preferred figuring the split by road miles; they would grab the greater share of money because the county has more roads than the cities.

Oakdale and Turlock generate more sales tax per capita than the others. They argued that they deserve a greater share because the money comes from that very source. But agreeing to that demand would mean less money for the other seven cities.

In early January, Turlock drew a line in the sand by embracing a hybrid formula combining the three elements and essentially challenging the county and eight other cities to take it or leave it. Turlock officials have made no secret of an idea to put their own sales tax hike before their voters -- drawing charges from the others that Turlock was refusing to be a team player.

And Oakdale demanded parity with Riverbank and Patterson, even though it has fewer residents.

"No justification has been given on why Oakdale warranted this special treatment," Ceres administrators groused in a staff report.

The mess was smoothed out by allowing each city its preference. That will work only because county leaders agree to take a smaller share and to give Oakdale an advance.

"We had to be the leader in the discussion," County Supervisor Jeff Grover said. "There is no sense in the county being involved if we're not looking at the higher good of the entire county."

But some players were dissatisfied with regional project details:

CERES -- Leaders frowned at an early proposal dedicating the central corridor's entire $117 million to Highway 132. Ceres, anxious to rebuild its interchange at Mitchell and Service roads, said that project would provide relief to the Beard Industrial District, south Modesto, Hughson and the county by easing truck traffic heading to and from Highway 99. The others agreed.

PATTERSON -- City Council members, many West Side residents and some road-tax critics remain adamantly opposed to Kamilos' Crows Landing development. They are wary of Turlock's proposed link to I-5.

"The whole deal is a device to build the roads to the Kamilos project," said Modesto's Dave Thomas, past president of the Stanislaus Taxpayers Association.

Patterson Mayor Becky Campo said her council's support comes with a proviso: no hint of Kamilos, whose consultant is jockeying to promote the sales tax measure.

"We wouldn't feel comfortable if he is involved," Campo said. She co-authored an opinion piece with Grover, supporting the sales tax bump, printed Wednesday in The Bee's editorial section.

Grover's response: "That is a group discussion and not something for the county or Patterson to decide."

TURLOCK -- Although the formula flap appears resolved, Turlock is sensitive to the West Side's cynicism regarding Kamilos and improving West Main Street from Turlock out to I-5.

If that south-county project falls apart, Turlock could demand that the $117 million south-corridor allotment be divided among the affected agencies, likely to be Turlock, Patterson and Newman. How the other players view this idea remains unclear.

The county-cities partnership mostly has ignored the committee behind 2006's Measure K, whose nonelected members retain stakes in the outcome of a countywide vote. The Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance, which counseled the 2006 group, has scheduled a special meeting Tuesday afternoon and expects to deliver its opinion the next day to StanCOG.

Myriad details might not be worked out by Wednesday's StanCOG meeting. But participants say they all agree on two things: Our roads need immediate attention in a big way, and the only likely solution -- a sales tax increase -- demands unity.

"It's all for one," Grover said, "or nothing."

Wednesday's meeting of the Stanislaus Council of Governments policy board starts at 7 p.m. in the basement chamber of Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St., Modesto.

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

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