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County shows support for Turlock road tax initiative
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At the behest of Stanislaus Council of Governments Board Chairman Vito Chiesa the regional transportation agency opted to support Turlock’s initiative to approve a half-cent city wide road tax on the November ballot despite previous tension leading Turlock to consider abandoning support of the county’s own future road tax initiative.

“I asked for this to be placed on the agenda and I think what I was looking for was this body to support Turlock in their endeavor. We’re not going to make or break what Turlock passes,”said Chiesa at the StanCOG meeting on Wednesday evening. “I drive on Turlock roads. We all drive on Turlock roads.  We all drive on Modesto roads, and Patterson roads, and Ceres roads and I’m hoping this body will take a look at that and consider supporting Turlock in their endeavor.”

While the agenda item was unanimously approved save for one abstention from Member Michael Brennan of the City of Oakdale, the relatively unruffled decision of Policy Board member’s to support Turlock’s initiative was a far cry from much more contentious meetings that preceded Wednesday’s decision. 

Discussion of a Turlock city-wide road tax began earlier this year when StanCOG opted against pursuing its third attempt at a countywide transportation tax — an initiative that failed by a narrow margin in both 2006 and 2008 general elections. The Policy Board had discussed bringing the countywide transportation tax to voters this November, even going as far as to provide an expenditure plan that was reviewed by the city councils from each of the county’s nine jurisdictions. However, in February the county pulled the initiative after a countywide poll revealed that the item was unlikely to garner the necessary two-thirds approval for it to pass.

 The City of Turlock in turn pursued a road tax that would have a lifespan of seven years, but include a provision that should a countywide transportation tax be approved in the future the City tax would in turn be terminated.

Turlock’s decision to spearhead its own initiative was precipitated by a discussion in October in which the Policy Board deemed Turlock’s Highway 99/Fulkerth Road interchange project less qualified for funds from the $14.7 million State Transportation Improvement Program for highway and regional transit needs. Instead, the Policy Board’s decision to allocate funds in support of Modesto’s State Route 132 West Freeway project and Stanislaus County’s widening of McHenry Avenue to San Joaquin County sparked a discussion of where funds have been consistently spent. According to Policy Board Turlock representative City Councilmember Forrest White that was anywhere but Turlock.

“When is the last time any money was put south of Modesto?” asked White. “This board has never had a South county priority. Sure we are moving dirt, but it just happens to only be dirt in the north,” said White at the thorny October meeting.

The board ultimately decided in a 10-4 vote to recommend the McHenry Avenue and SR 132 projects with which White responded by saying he would urge Turlock City Council members to withdraw any future support for a countywide transportation tax, severely lessening the chances of such a tax ever passing.

“We’re going to move forward with this project on our own,” said White in October. “It’s obvious that you’ve said ‘Do it on your own’, and so that’s what we’ll do.” 

This claim has since been translated into Measure B which will appear before Turlock voters on the November ballot. If the measure passes, 50 cents of every $100 dollars spent on taxable purchases in the City of Turlock would go towards repair of the roads, ultimately generating an estimated $5.6 million per year.

While the county’s decision to wait two years until their own road tax appears on the ballot leaves them in a seemingly futile position, Chiesa’s decision to urge the board to show solidarity for one of its council’s decision exhibits forward thinking to the benefit of the county.

“I think it only strengthens our position… Even though it’s less than 20 percent of the population of Stanislaus County, if people see improvements being made they are going to be more likely to help support this and we need every vote we can get,” said Chiesa.