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Roads can wait; Turlock has tougher problems to tackle

POSTED October 2, 2012 8:47 p.m.

I have been a resident of Turlock for 13 years. During that time I have had at least two tires go flat and multiple bumper scrapes due to the poor state of our city’s roads. Despite my own personal run-ins with Turlock’s famous pot holes, I must respectfully disagree with those Turlockers who feel that the state of the roads should be a priority for city officials.

Please allow me to plead my case; starting with the City of Atwater.

I remember thinking just a few short years ago that the City of Atwater must be on an upswing.

The town was able to bring in both a Walmart Supercenter and a Super Target, making Atwater a shopping destination for bargain hunters. And more than a few families I know have moved into one of Atwater’s new housing communities, taking advantage of the much lower housing prices south of Stanislaus County.

Today, however, Atwater city officials will vote on whether or not to declare a fiscal emergency — the first step on the road to bankruptcy.

According to the Associated Press, Atwater city leaders say the foreclosure crisis and mounting employee pension costs have left them with a $3 million deficit.

If Atwater goes the bankruptcy route, it would be California's fourth city to seek bankruptcy protection.

The City of Turlock is nowhere near declaring a fiscal emergency — or filing for bankruptcy — mainly due to the healthy reserve funds former council members wisely built up over the years. This being said, however, the city is operating under a deficit budget, employees are taking yet another pay cut and the city has far fewer employees doing more work.

Balancing the city budget, figuring out ways to draw new industry to town and advocating for more local tax dollars staying in local coffers should be the priority for the Turlock City Council — and candidates vying for a spot on the council — not road repair.

I know what many of you may be thinking: How can we ask new businesses to come to town without good infrastructure? And you’re right, the roads are bad.

A 2008 assessment indicated Turlock’s streets averaged a 59 on a 100 point scale – satisfactory, but below the 80 point value assessors indicated as a target.

Here’s the problem, to bring Turlock’s streets to an 80 point level would cost about $92 million today, the 2008 report said, plus about $5 million annually.

Maintaining streets at their current dilapidated level would cost more per year – about $10 million annually – but would do without the initial $92 million charge. In large part, that’s because maintaining slightly-used asphalt is much less expensive than repairing bumpy streets.

The city only receives about $1.1 million of the $12 million in gas tax revenue collected in Turlock, with much of that devoted only to safety work like pothole repairs and road striping. A further, $1.5 million in state and federal grants provides Turlock’s only discretionary road spending.

I have taken more than a few phone calls over the years about the perceived discrimination regarding which roads get repaired. There is a reason for that: Benefit Assessment Districts. Newer areas of town have Benefit Assessment Districts, where property owners pay annual fees to maintain their roads. That’s why newer parts of Turlock often see roads in good condition resurfaced, while older roads languish.

In April, the City Council considered putting a new tax initiative on the November ballot, dedicated to repairing the city’s dilapidated roadways. The council considered creating a city-wide benefit assessment district, or a per-parcel tax; or a new half-cent sales tax. The tax would have qualified the city to receive state and federal funding to augment a road repair budget.

In the end, the City Council decided times were too tough to ask residents to pay more taxes.

A new revenue stream is the only way the City of Turlock can afford to repair its many dilapidated roadways. So, those who think road repair is a top priority should start advocating for new taxes — or sell about 92 million cups of lemonade and donate the cost of repairs.

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