Jeff Jardine

Salida, think before you leap on plan

There's probably no greater cliché or warning than "be careful what you wish for because it might come true" adage.

For decades, some good folks in Salida have wanted cityhood. The irony is that Salida probably should have been incorporated as far back as 1910, when it had a hotel, store, water works, several other businesses, electrical and sewer services, and a grist mill.

Attempts to incorporate over the years failed because it didn't pencil out.

Consequently, Salida became like a borough of Modesto — a neighborhood of 14,000 residents amid piecemeal growth and goofy planning, if there was much planning at all.

Drive up Highway 99 and through the subdivisions, and much of the area looks like it was developed on a first-come, first-served basis.

So who can blame Salidans for wanting control of their own destiny, their development and their tax dollars? Who can blame them for not wanting to leave the decisions about their community in the hands of supervisors who don't consider Salida their priority.

This quote from Supervisor Jim DeMartini, who represents south Modesto and the West Side of the county, in Tuesday's Bee: "I'm not sure how much the West Side cares about the Salida Plan. It's more of a local issue. I'm satisfied with the project."

Tuesday, the supervisors — somewhat unexpectedly — voted 3-2 to approve the so-called Salida Plan, which means growth, growth and more growth. Planned growth. Organized growth. Growth that promises jobs, homes, businesses, homes, industry and, you guessed it, more homes.

The supes' timing was interesting — suspect might be a better word.

By doing so, they avoided giving voters control through the pro-growth Salida Now initiative that was headed for the November ballot or the Stamp Out Sprawl initiative the supervisors themselves pushed off until a February vote.

Some Salida residents are thrilled, because they believe it paves the way toward cityhood and control. But the fact that developers pumped $400,000 into the Salida Now signature drive and campaign, and money into the supervisors' war chests, should more than raise eyebrows.

Considering the way politicians so eagerly take cash from developers — the Salida and Crows Landing projects are fresh ink — why not just sell their votes on eBay!, or to the highest bidder at the Ernst Auctions? Can what's best for developers also be what's best for Salida? Or will the developers simply get rich while the community pays a huge price?

I'd bet on the developers. It invariably works that way.

The idea Salida finally will become a city — with its own city hall, mayor, council, police and fire departments — sounds great in theory, but might not be so good in practice.

Salida will need a city hall, and of course, someone to run it. So budget at least $95,000 in salary plus benefits for a city manager who will then need staff. Much of that staff will have to be engineers, planners and building inspectors — none of whom work cheap. Why? When you add 5,000 new homes (minimum) and develop business and retail, someone has to monitor and process all of that growth.

Also, some residents want their own police force. Cities such as Riverbank and Patterson, both larger than Salida, find it more economical to contract with the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department for police services. Likewise, the city of Lathrop, incorporated in 1989, uses the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Department.

They do it for the cost savings.

"We're very happy with the Sheriff's Department," Riverbank City Manager Rich Holmer said. "But even with the savings, (public safety) eats up half of our general fund budget."

Salida also would have to pay its fair share to the 911 communications center, Holmer said. Riverbank paid $395,000 this year, he said.

As an unincorporated area, Salida already is served by the Sheriff's Department, with its services funded from the sheriff's regular budget.

To pay for a new, well-staffed city police department, Salidans would need to get a building, hire a chief, officers and staff, and pay for cars, equipment and training. Are the residents willing to add who knows how much — $1,000 or more per year per home — to their taxes to pay for this? And finally, does anyone believe the county is going to simply let Salida become its own city without having to pony up some go-away money? Bee growth reporter Garth Stapley wrote last year how Sacramento communities had to sell their collective souls to the county when they became cities.

A 1986 ruling forced cities to negotiate "revenue neutrality" with their counties "to make sure the counties don't go bankrupt without their cash cows," he wrote.

Citrus Heights had to cough up its property tax to the county for 25 years and Rancho Cordova agreed to pay $6.3 million annually for 31 years. But those new cities already had substantial retail, generating tax revenue that made it feasible to incorporate.

Salida doesn't have that kind of retail, and won't for several years unless the building of retail and industry moves at a faster pace than homes. No chance of that. The homes will come first, as always.

So as haphazard and piecemeal as development has been under the county, the cost of becoming a city might prove to be more than Salida can afford.

It's the ultimate "be careful what you wish for," because the truth could really be expensive.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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