In his State of the City address, delivered Friday morning at the City Corporation Yard, Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth listed many of the City's accomplishments over the past year and shared his vision for an even better 2016. For many Turlock residents, however, the news that the City doubled its pothole repair budget was probably the most impactful.
The state of the city's roads continues to be a top issue for residents — and for the Mayor, who spent considerable time talking about where the City has already made improvements and upcoming road projects.
Coming in 2016 will be improvement of the Fulkerth Road and Golden State Boulevard intersection, leveraging federal grants and city gas tax funds for a total of $3 million in repairs and upgrades; the West Main Street and Tegner Road intersection will get a new traffic signal for a total of $1.2 million from federal grants and local Capital Facility Fee funds; and an additional 1 million square feet of roadway slurry seals will come from assessment district funding.
As there are still myriad of roads in desperate need of repair in Turlock and not enough funding, Soiseth took the opportunity during his address to reiterate his support of the Stanislaus Council of Governments' proposed countywide road tax.
"As your representative on the Stanislaus Council of Governments, I have been working with area leaders—including our great Supervisor Vito Chiesa. Because of his steadfast leadership, we have created a formula that tackles our current roads head on, while also investing in some of our poorest neighborhoods that still don’t have sidewalks or basic infrastructure. Together, the Council of Governments –made up of all nine cities and the county—have come together to create a formula that spends a majority of the revenue on existing road repair, and this will be done before any new roads are constructed.
"We need this initiative. Turlock's roads are failing."
Soiseth also assured those in attendance Friday morning that the City Council would make sure that funds generated from the countywide road tax, if passed, earmarked for Turlock would actually be spent repairing Turlock roads.
"There will be no bait-and-switch of funds, and there will be a firm commitment to 'fix it first' before new roads are constructed," Soiseth said.
After travelling through Turlock's current and future road needs, the Mayor turned his focus onto an issue that has dominated the state for the past four years — water.
Standing in front of a mountain of sand bags prepped and ready to head off any potential flooding winter storms may bring, Soiseth touted the City's conservation efforts during the drought.
"This last year was a big year for water—or a lack of water. We entered into California’s historic fourth year of a drought and Turlock’s residents stepped up to the challenge. We conserved, and we conserved, and we conserved some more. We limited our outdoor watering to two days a week, and now to one. City staff stepped up enforcement, but city residents seemed to rise to the challenge on their own. This last year, we delivered the same amount of water that we did in 1994, when we were a city of just 47,000 people.
"But I have said this time and again: Turlock cannot conserve its way out of a drought."
Soiseth said that the City of Turlock must invest in alternate sources of drinking water for the future.
"I was just a year old when the City of Turlock and TID started negotiations on obtaining raw water from the Tuolumne River for municipal use—and at 30, I was happy to finally end the negotiations and obtain a raw water agreement with TID that put the cities of Turlock and Ceres—and hopefully the surrounding communities of Hughson, Denair, Keyes and Hilmar—on a path toward reliable drinking water.
"I will say it today—I have faith that we have the right team in place to see this project through. Ceres Mayor Vierra and I are both committed 100 percent to see this come to reality, and we both believe that—drought or no drought—we can see this project started by 2018."
Soiseth talked not only about investing in infrastructure, but also in the City's public safety through new equipment purchases and programs like the Street Crimes Unit. Looking ahead to 2016, Soiseth said that further investments in public safety would be contingent on the departments' ability to find savings in their budgets or increased revenue opportunities.
The Mayor went on to highlight the work that local nonprofit agencies do with the homeless and at-risk in the community, but said that the City's decision last June to increase enforcement of municipal codes was necessary to make sure the city remains safe for all residents.
"...it is not a crime to be homeless, but it is a crime to not follow our laws. Our police department stepped up the enforcement of these current laws, from sleeping in parks past the closure time of 10 p.m., to possessing a shopping cart, to drinking alcohol in our public spaces.
"In 2014, we issued just 16 municipal code violations —16. Then in June, with a renewed sense of urgency to restore our parks and limit the illegal activity occurring in our public spaces, we issued 287 municipal code violations.
"This number is significant because it shows the emphasis that the City of Turlock places on law and order. We are a giving and compassionate community with services for those that are dependent on substances or have mental issues or suffer from financial hardship, but we are also a community that values safety and security. We are a community that will give you a helping hand, but we expect a lot in return."
Turlock isn't just upping its emphasis on law and order, as the Mayor challenged every citizen to meet a goal of a "million acts of kindness."
"My drive for this new campaign did not start in our city; it started halfway across the globe. While I was born and raised here in Turlock, I also spent four years in remote villages throughout Afghanistan serving some of the poorest members of our world community. While I didn’t speak Pashto or Dari, I was able to demonstrate through actions a message of compassion, hope, and—most importantly—a message of kindness.
"Acts of kindness come in all forms and many efforts are already underway...Acts of kindness also include simple gestures of inclusion and acceptance."
Soiseth said that this spring, he would be teaming up with local ministries and organizations to further the campaign of making the city a kinder, stronger, more welcoming community.
"This campaign will start with the City of Turlock’s Afterschool Program, where I will work with Turlock’s youngest citizens to define what it means to be a 'City of Kindness.' This initiative will also become a central project of the Mayor’s Youth Conference, an annual meeting of young leaders here at City Hall that will work with me to create solutions to social issues within Turlock."
From his Acts of Kindness campaign, to public safety, road improvements and water projects, Soiseth's central theme was investment in making Turlock a better place to live.
All that investment comes with a price tag — and Soiseth isn't known for buying on credit — so it's no surprise that the Mayor announced he will once again hold a series of weekly budget workshops in February and March to go line-by-line over the City's budget to find the savings and revenue sources available to fund future investments.
"Our investments of 2015 have been large, but they have been 'game-changing' —and I’m proud that they have not been made at the expense of the taxpayer.
"I’m confident that our city will continue to grow in strength economically. City Hall will continue to look for new opportunities for revenue generation and investment opportunities, and we will continue to responsibly invest in our biggest asset: you, our employees."