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State of the County 2014: Local road tax and water take center stage
Monte Vista roads
Fixing the roads is expected to be a priority this year in Stanislaus County. - photo by Journal file photo

Delivering the 2014 State of the County address on Tuesday morning, Supervisor Jim DeMartini laid out the challenges continuing to face Stanislaus, while calling on the need for a countywide road tax.

“We have big, and at times, daunting challenges,” said DeMartini, speaking to fellow supervisors and county officials. “Our unemployment rate is too high. We have a water crisis. We need to improve public safety for our residents. Most importantly, we need to restore hope.”

Citing transportation and water issues as the most serious challenges currently facing the county, DeMartini encouraged residents and city leaders throughout the region to support a local transportation tax that could be presented to voters on the November ballot. Although previous efforts to approve a countywide road tax failed by a narrow margin in Stanislaus during the 2006 and 2008 elections, DeMartini says that now is the time for all nine cities to join together in support for better roads.

Should a countywide local transportation tax be approved by voters, Stanislaus would qualify as a ‘self-help’ county, making the region eligible to use local dollars to leverage billions of federal and state dollars each year to dedicate towards transportation system improvements.

“Every industry in this county, including agriculture, relies on a sound transportation system to move its people, goods, and services,” said DeMartini. “Local leaders broadly accept that we need to be a self-help County…I call on each city council of our nine cities, as well as the County Board of Supervisors, to pass a resolution agreeing on the allocation formula and the county-wide road projects…Partnership and cooperation is key.”

In January, the Stanislaus Council of Governments, the regional transportation planning agency, approved a framework for the expenditure plan that would allocate revenues collected from the tax across the county. Although the StanCOG Policy Board, made of up city officials from each of the county’s nine cities, has not yet approved any resolutions that would officially place the transportation tax measure on the November ballot, Executive Director Carlos Yamzon says that the agency is working towards gaining regional support before making a final decision to place the tax initiative before voters.

With over 81 percent of California residents residing in a ‘self-help’ county, DeMartini asserts that Stanislaus is currently at a significant disadvantage while competing for limited transportation funding.

“Unless the County and the cities move as one on a transportation measure, we will not be successful,” said DeMartini. “No one likes tax increases, but we can only move this forward if we act together. But if we don’t move together, we will not move at all.”

While transportation and road concerns continue to alarm Stanislaus residents, worries surrounding water shortages and the ongoing drought plaguing California have left communities throughout the state in crisis-mode.

In November, the County Board of Supervisors opted to prohibit the mining and exportation of groundwater in an effort to end the over drafting of the precious resource. Although the ban was a significant first-step in protecting groundwater resources, Stanislaus continues to face considerable water system challenges.

“The depletion of the groundwater resources that serve our County is not simply a drought related issue; it is an issue of sustainability,” said DeMartini. “We are over pumping at an alarming level…Every city in Stanislaus relies on groundwater for drinking water. To a great extent, agriculture relies on groundwater. The current drought conditions have focused our attention on this vital natural resource.”

Following the Board’s decision to prohibit the exportation and sale of groundwater, a water advisory committee was formed made of representatives of agriculture, irrigation districts, and community members. Together, the committee is working to develop a comprehensive water policy providing a sustainable solution to groundwater over drafting.

“This policy must be developed using scientific facts and it must provide us with long term solutions,” said DeMartini. “There is no value in pointing fingers and there is no time for delay. We need to act. If we don’t and the problem worsens, the State of California will intervene and we risk the ability to control our own destiny.”

As the Don Pedro Reservoir federal relicensing process continues, the County has committed to working alongside Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts to ensure the region secures the vital source, while protecting the County’s agriculture-dependent economy.

“Our entire economy depends on this effort,” said DeMartini. “Giving up any additional water from Don Pedro Dam will have long lasting negative implications for all of our citizens and our agricultural industry.”

Other highlights from DeMartini’s State of the County address included issues of education, public safety, health and agriculture, as the supervisor recognized the County’s efforts in renovating an existing building in Ceres for a new 16-bed Psychiatric Health Facility to open in March; increased crime within the County resulting from the Public Safety Realignment act that has caused overcrowding in county jails across the state; the alarming rise of childhood obesity rates in Stanislaus; and the need for a diverse economy to provide jobs to lessen the county’s high unemployment rate.

“Stanislaus County doesn’t win if the cities lost, and the cities don’t win if the county loses,” said DeMartini. “There will be no progress on infrastructure, on water or other important issues, unless we learn to work together…the obligation to make our county more prosperous rests squarely on the 520,000 people who live here. Events beyond our control will shape our future. How we handle those events however, is fully in our hands.”