A new tax to benefit Stanislaus County's dilapidated streets could be priority No. 1 for new Board of Supervisors Chairman Jim DeMartini.
The proposed tax – and its benefits to the region's agricultural economy – took center stage during DeMartini's State of the County address, delivered Tuesday morning.
“No one likes tax increases, but we can only move this forward if we act together,” DeMartini said. “But if we don’t move together, we will not move at all.”
The transportation tax is key to DeMartini's vision of an agriculture-focused Stanislaus County. Without good roadways, it becomes difficult for farmers to transport their goods to market, and to entice food processors to locate factories and warehouses here, he said.
It's time to recognize the importance of agriculture and devote the county's full backing to it, said DeMartini, a almond, walnut, peach, grape, and row crop farmer who cultivates more than 1,000 acres. It's simply unrealistic to expect that Stanislaus County can re-brand itself as an economic engine for other industries, he said.
“We will never be a tourist mecca like the coast,” DeMartini said. “Nor are we going to attract the California film industry here or become another Silicon Valley. I am not suggesting we shouldn’t diversify and look for other opportunities, but we need to lead with our strength. Our strength is agriculture.”
DeMartini noted that Stanislaus County workers don't have to be on a farm to be employed by agriculture. Bankers and factory workers alike are employed directly because of the county's agriculture – ag inputs, production and processing account for 38 percent of county employment, he said. That figure doesn't include those who serve agricultural employees, from teachers to doctors and mechanics.
“Agriculture truly is the 'big tent' that shelters all of us,” DeMartini said.
Because of that, Stanislaus County should consider ag land an irreplaceable natural resource, he said– not a place to build houses or warehouses.
“It is time we recognize this reality,” DeMartini said. “We will not improve ourselves by paving over our most productive agricultural land or by simply becoming a bedroom community for the Bay Area. It is important that we recognize the uniqueness of what Stanislaus County has and build on that strength.”
The way to build on that strength, DeMartini said, is to improve the county's transportation system and water infrastructure.
DeMartini spoke out in favor of a long-discussed local transportation tax, which could be used to leverage additional federal and state funding. Should county residents choose to tax themselves, it would open up billions in funding which is exclusively available to so-called “self-help counties.”
Stanislaus County voters turned down a transportation tax in 2008 by the slim margin of just 70 votes. It's time to ask voters to consider the measure again, DeMartini said, but only if the plan has countywide support.
“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,” DeMartini said. “This unified focus is essential to gaining the trust of and support from the voters on this important issue. Unless the county and the cities move as one on a transportation measure, we will not be successful.”
As for water, DeMartini said the county must work harder to protect its groundwater supply, which he termed as critical to agriculture. He noted the board has formed a water advisory committee to develop a policy to prevent overdrafting the aquifer.
“This policy must be developed using scientific facts and it must provide us with long term solutions,” DeMartini said. “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.”
The re-licensing of Don Pedro Reservoir, which provides water to both the Turlock and Modesto Irrigation Districts, is also critical, DeMartini said. The county must help the districts however possible to ensure that the reservoir is re-licensed and the districts retain their water rights.
“Our entire economy depends on this effort,” DeMartini said. “Giving up any additional water from Don Pedro Dam will have long lasting negative implications for all of our citizens and our agricultural industry.”
Of course, other issues face the county as well, ranging from high unemployment rates to a lack of public safety. DeMartini noted a few successes in the realm of economic development, Turlock's new Blue Diamond facility and pending Hilmar Cheese Company expansion chief among them.
The county must also make a serious effort to stop walnut theft and to reduce childhood obesity, DeMartini said. More than 40 percent of Stanislaus County 5th, 7th and 9th grade students are either overweight or obese, he said.
Internal issues face Stanislaus County as well. The county must renegotiate labor contracts with all 12 county unions over the next six months; existing contracts expire June 30.
“Our goal will be to recognize the value of our employees while ensuring the county remains fiscally viable in light of the uncertainty surrounding the long term economic recovery,” DeMartini said.
Ultimately, the future success of Stanislaus County is reliant upon cooperation, DeMartini said. The cities and county must work together to tackle the important issues like infrastructure, rather than squabble for minor victories as the entire region loses.
“Neither Sacramento nor Washington is going to come riding into the Valley and improve our schools, arrest our criminals, build our infrastructure, take care of our elderly or insure equal opportunity for our children,” DeMartini said. “They won’t safeguard our groundwater or protect our farmland in a way that best serves us. We are the only ones who can do that. Finger pointing may make us feel good, but 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.”