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Public safety funding, road tax top issues at Turlock candidate forum

Public safety funding, road tax top issues at Turlock candidate forum

Turlock mayoral candidates Gary Soiseth and Mike Brem answered questions on their views about the future of the city at the League of Women Voters debate Wednesday night.


POSTED October 2, 2014 7:24 p.m.

Most of Wednesday night's candidate forum, held at City Hall and hosted by the League of Women Voters, was a love fest with each city council and mayoral candidate taking turns professing their affinity for and dedication to the community of Turlock.  Amid the pro-Turlock rhetoric, however, the candidates did find time to address a few key issues facing the city and its citizens, mainly public safety, roads and water.

With the Turlock Police Department at its lowest level of sworn personnel in several years, causing a strain on the officers patrolling the streets, the question of increased public safety funding was the first issue posed to city council candidates at Wednesday's forum.

Challengers Matthew Jacob and Sergio Alvarado both said they aim to bring more attention to the city's police shortage.

"It's kind of alarming when you think about a city the size of 70,000 has, at any given time, five officers on patrol. That's about one officer for every 14,000, not to mention everybody else that's here," Jacob said.

Incumbent Bill DeHart pointed out that over three-quarters of the city's budget is currently committed to public safety and promised to evaluate both the police and fire department funding if reelected.

Incumbent Forrest White and challenger Donald Babadalir both emphasized the need for more money in the city's coffers before additional funds could be spent on public safety.

"I think the real key is, if you're going to grow public safety you have to grow the pie, and if you're going to grow the pie, we need more revenue. I think it would be foolish to take the advantages we have as a city, our planning, our parks and rec and things like that and say, no, those don't count and try to put more dollars into the police department with the existing budget...you're then giving up some of the quality of life issues," said White.

White did say, however, that finding matching funding for the Community Oriented Policing Services grant awarded to the Turlock Police Department to hire additional officers might be possible.

"I believe there are the funds in the reserve available to do that. The question is do we want to do it? I can't speak for the council...but I think when you analyze it, I would say there's a real good possibility of that going forward," he said.

Jacob was overwhelming in favor of the city accepting the COPS grant and finding the matching funding.

DeHart, Alavardo and Babadalir wanted more information before they could form an opinion on the issue.

"It's news that all of us want to hear. It's news we all want to believe in and grasp hold of. The reality is we need to see what the recommendations are, what the flexibilities are. I would be very hopeful that we could find a way to accomplish that," said DeHart.

The mayoral candidates both agreed that public safety was a priority, however, increasing overall funding of the police and fire department budgets is not realistic at this time.

"As incremental revenue comes in, we need to make fire and police protection a priority and add as we get more resources," said Mike Brem.

"In 2007 we asked our public safety sectors, police and fire, to take cuts, to take a 9 percent cut. I think it's just important that when we do come back economically, we honor those commitments. And we say, yes, you sacrificed for the holistic health of the city and we are going to make you whole when we can," said Gary Soiseth.

When the question of how to fix Turlock's ever-deteriorating roads was raised — and specifically Measure B, the half-cent citywide road tax initiative to fund the maintenance and repair of city roads — the candidates were split.

"I am 100 percent in favor of assessment districts," said Babadalir. "...our streets wouldn't be in the shape that they are in right now and it would also ensure that the funding is appropriated correctly.

"But since that has not happened, Measure B is on the table and that is up to the tax payers and the citizens here of Turlock in order to make that decision. But, otherwise, my plan would have been assessment districts."

DeHart, White and Jacob all said they support Measure B.

"I would say that it would be important to not just accept it because it's all that's available," said DeHart. "I think there has been a very careful crafting of this particular measure and I think the protections that have been built are such that Turlockers can feel confident.

"There's more to it than just that...the reality is is that the citizens of Turlock need to have the opportunity to vote on a measure with a fairly quick turnaround time for immediate funds. They have the right to have their voice heard in that regard, specifically when it has to do with determining their destiny, how they get to and from work, how they get to and from shopping, how they get to and from medical. And when we add in the folks that come in from out of town, we find that equation is very much in favor of the city."

Alvarado, however, said he is against the city-wide road tax.

"I'm against Measure B. We have a lot of unknowns in that measure. Two years into the tax the county could be passing a countywide tax that would kill our tax measure. A lot of areas that voted for this tax, that want their roads fixed, may not see them be repaired if they're on years three, four, five and six and down the road. We also have the issue of a developer that donated to this measure that raises a lot of ethical issues for me," he said.

"It's too many unknowns and negatives to me. I do agree that our roads are bad, but I don't believe Measure B is the way to solve it."

Mayoral candidate Soiseth said that before he could support Measure B he would need a guarantee that Turlock roads would remain a priority if a countywide road tax measure passed in 2016.

Brem said that it's imperative that Turlock pass Measure B, as it's the best way to start repairing the roads.

Regarding a possible county road tax in the future, Brem said that the council would "make sure that we get what Turlock deserves, and that's the same level of funding we would get with Measure B. And unless we get that, we won't support a county initiative and if the City of Turlock doesn't support it, it won't pass. That's the leverage that we have."

Soiseth and Brem both addressed the issue of water resources in regards to the city's General Plan for residential housing.

"When we grow, we need to make sure that our infrastructure is up-to-date to handle the growth that comes through and the drought is a great example. We're right now 100 percent dependent on ground water resources; two wells have already gone down this summer, in addition to the one that went down recently, and that worries me. There are options on the table to diversify our water resources and to make sure that we have a sustainable amount to actually supply this growth," said Soiseth.

"We need to start putting our money where our mouth is and actually start negotiations and start working towards improving our infrastructure so it can handle it when the growth comes."

Brem pointed out that the General Plan is not time sensitive and that it mandates infrastructure be in place before growth.

"Gary's exactly right, we need surface water treatment from TID. We're both aligned in the fact that we need to get TID and the City of Turlock together, we need a plan once and for all and move this thing along. Otherwise, we will not have the resources to grow, both economically or anything else," said Brem.

Although not the most important political issue of the night, the mayoral candidates were asked what they plan to do about Turlock's mountain lion problem.

Although Brem admitted his son's "Mike got the Mountain Lion" T-shirt was only in jest, he said he hoped the lion was captured and relocated and not killed.

Soiseth said he recently told a third grade class that mountain lions were his favorite animals, but he has no plans to hunt Turlock's roaming big cat and will instead spend his time knocking on doors and campaigning.

To learn more about the Turlock City Council and Mayoral candidates, local and state propositions, and other races set for the Nov. 4 Election, see the Journal's Election 2014 tab inside Saturday's paper.

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