A group of Turlock citizens have gathered to create a committee supporting Measure B, the new road tax item that will appear on the ballot in the 2014 November General Election.
The long-discussed half-cent sales tax to benefit roads would generate about $5.6 million in revenues each year, and $39.2 million over the seven-year life of the tax. The tax has a sunset clause that allows reconsideration of the measure after seven years. It would be overseen by an independent body, and revoked if Stanislaus County adopts a countywide transportation tax.
Members of the committee, Citizens for Yes on Measure B, feel that it will not take any convincing for Turlockers to see the roads are in disrepair. But it may take some campaigning for them to agree to paying a tax. Moreover, the measure must be passed with a two-thirds vote, a greater challenge than general taxes face and candidential races that necessitate a 50-plus-one passing.
According to the ordinance, 100 percent of tax revenues would go directly toward street repairs in the City of Turlock. Also according to the legislation, each quadrant of Turlock would see some repairs each year, with nearly every major street seeing at least some improvement.
Community citizens and residents that were interested in helping campaign to pass measure B make up the Advising Committee: Lazar Piro, Abe Rojas, Charles Crivelli, Andrew Wigglesworth, Nick Hackler, Joe Ballas, John Lazar, Greg Eisenhauer, Larry Rumbeck, Scott Dorius, Forrest White, Paul Porter, Alan Marchant, Oscar Avila, Ram Sani, and Kristin Bettencourt.
Jim Theis, head of the Steering Committee for Citizens for Yes on Measure B, acknowledged that outreach may be one of the biggest challenges they face.
“That’s probably the most difficult thing, because you know, you can schedule public forums and nobody shows, or very few people show,” said Theis. “We’ve tried this in the past. The other thing we’re doing is that we’re taking every opportunity such as this to talk to people, whether it be service clubs, realtor groups, whatever, to sit down and talk about the specifics of Measure B.”
Theis explained that the committee doesn’t anticipate having to convince residents the roads are poor.
“Nobody really disagrees that the roads need to be fixed,” said Theis. “That is almost unanimous. I haven’t heard of anybody that says, ‘hey, Turlock roads are perfect, we don’t need to do anything.’”
Instead, Theis continued, the discussion is funding.
“The big question comes is, ‘How do we fund it?’” said Theis. “The unfortunate thing is that funds available from outside of Turlock… they aren’t significant enough or there aren’t availability that we can count on them for road repairs. We do see limited amounts of federal and state money coming in and those are used for the big projects like Canal Drive, Fulkerth Road, the most recent Monte Vista in front of the university. Those are all being funded by federal and state with no money from the local side of it, and when you look at the general fund of Turlock, which is about $30 million, there’s basically no money allocated for road repair and I don’t ever recall that there has been.”
Joining Theis on the Steering Committee are: Kevin Berger (Treasurer), City Councilman Steven Nascimento, Chris Kiriakou, and Chamber of Commerce CEO Sharon Silva.
City Councilmember Nascimento serves on the Steering Committee for Citizens for Yes on Measure B, as he wants residents to be informed of the tax before seeing it on the November ballot. With less than three months to go before the election, it’s a race for the committee to explain to reluctant residents why they say “yes” to B.
“A few of us had kind of had this conversation about [Measure B] and the committee just sort of formed amongst the individuals who were interested and like-minded in terms of the need for an educational campaign,” said Nascimento.
“An educational campaign.” Nascimento echoed these words throughout his explanation of the committee’s work, as he feels that the need to show Turlockers how the measure works is much greater than the need to convince them the roads need fixing.
“There doesn’t seem to be very much disagreement about what the problem is, I think most people would agree that our roads are in a state of disrepair, and that significant investment is needed,” said Steven. “So that’s actually kind of nice, because it makes our job easier… The case we’re having to make is why the sales tax is the best bet for fixing the problem, or addressing the problem.”
Because the measure has a sunset clause, as of now if the tax were to pass, it would not be a permanent funding solution. But Nascimento did not state that he necessarily hopes to see the tax renewed again and again.
“I think that’s up to the residents of Turlock,” said Nascimento. “It was very important to the Council that we have the sunset clause and the reason it was important to us was because we want to make sure this works and if the citizens of Turlock don’t feel that the investment is significant enough or that they’re not getting what they expected than they have the opportunity to allow the tax to expire and not renew it and if they like what they see, then I’m sure another committee will be put together in the future and whoever votes will be pushing for its renewal.”
As for a current solution though, Nascimento sees Measure B as solving the roads issue.
“I do, yeah, absolutely. I’ve been very outspoken about my support for the half-cent sales tax and even when I ran for City Council in 2012, I was very clear about my position and I support it and I hope the residents of Turlock also see it as a good solution.”
Nascimento thinks that for the most part people understand what the measure entails in regards to the tax, but that they aren’t trusting of it.
“I think that the people understand that the sales tax will fix roads, but the concern that I hear is more about, ‘Well how do we know that the money is going to be spent on roads?’ And so I think the education part comes in, and sort of lining out the parameters of Measure B.”
Nascimento discussed some of those parameters, highlighting the sunset factor of the measure, as well as the task force that would review the measure annually. He explained that the reason the Council moved it forward as a dedicated sales tax as opposed to a general sales tax even though it requires a higher voter threshold, is that the money allocated to roads must be spent there.
“For me it’s been important that, I don’t know what future Councils will decide, so I think that’s important to lock that in,” said Nascimento. “So it doesn’t matter what the make-up of the Council is that money will be spent as laid out in the measure.”
Acknowledging the two-thirds vote as a “difficult mark to hit,” the Councilmember, like Theis, referenced a county-wide sales tax measure for roads that Turlock residents voted over 67 percent on.
“If you look at past measures, you know, when the County was looking at a County-wide sales tax measure for roads, Turlock actually did support it at the two-thirds level.”
The measure to which Nascimento refers occurred in 2008. Turlock voters did show a two-thirds level of approval, but the economy had only been down for a year, since the crash in 2007. Today, nearly six years later with the nation still in economic recovery, it could be fair to say that many people are wary of any new taxes, perhaps even more than ever before.
Councilmember Nascimento feels confident that the nature of the bill’s transparency speaks for itself, even in a tough economy.
“There is still tough times, I think people are minding their budgets, and this is certainly something that each resident has to sit down and look at it and make that evaluation as to whether this investment is a [worthy] cause to them.”
The City Council recently approved to put $50,000 aside out of the $32.4 million budget towards roads. At the time, Nascimento was quoted as the amount being “skin in the game” to which he would like to see Turlockers return the investment. But Nascimento’s comments were not unmet with disapproval. Some residents felt that $50,000 was a drop in the bucket compared to what the City should be investing.
Speaking on this, Nascimento agreed that $50,000 is not a lot of money in terms of a $30 million budget, but argued that the percentage was meant to replicate a household budget, where the amount given towards roads by citizens would be equally unfelt. Nascimento explained that Council “did the math” to figure out what would be the equivalent of the amount the tax would be, given the City’s $30 million annual budget.
“When you look at the half-cent sales tax, you’re talking about an initial 50 cents to every $100 spent on taxable goods, which isn’t a lot of money either,” said Nascimento. “And so the $50,000 is equivalent to what an individual would be paying additionally. So, we worked it so much that I don’t think it’s much… but Council, we felt like we had to do something.”
Nascimento explained that he feels paying to fix roads out of the general fund would be taking away from “other services that are also important to the community.”
“Do you prioritize public safety over roads? Or do you prioritize parks over roads? And I think that’s a conversation that is about Measure B,” said Nascimento. “We’re going to have to have that discussion and decide where does this money come from and it’s a very difficult thing because our budget, our general fund, has been very tight lately and we’ve been deficit spending and the money in the general fund really doesn’t exist without taking away from other programs.”
In short Nascimento sees spending money on youth programs as an investment in the community. And infrastructure as another investment — that needs a tax.
Advisory boardmember Kristin Bettencourt, who works on staff at Turlock High School, also serves on the Salvation Army Board and the Arrowhead Board of Turlock. Most recently, Bettencourt is acting as organizer for the Dancing with the Turlock Stars committee. Bettencourt is excited to join the committee, as she will serve as a kind of community liaison because of her heavy involvement around Turlock.
“I just have a pretty clear understanding that when the state is not able to fund things or the city doesn’t have enough money because of other expenses that have to be paid, or not enough revenues, then we do have to find another solution,” said Bettencourt. “The facts are the streets aren’t getting better, and it’s one of the things whether people, we kind of need to help ourselves and this seems to be the best solution.”
Bettencourt explained that while she is out in the community, whether it’s working on projects or socializing with neighbors and fellow Turlockers, she will be getting a feel for people’s ideas on the measure and that the committee wants to hear the feedback she will have to report, good or bad.
“So far the few people that I’ve talked about it with, have all been supportive of it,” said Bettencourt. “Our roads do definitely need improving, and I know that for myself, recently in my neighborhood, I benefitted from having my alley paved, the roads and sidewalks were part of a modernization project and it has made a big difference to my neighbors and I.”
Discussing Director of Development Services and City Engineer Mike Pitcock’s recent reports on roads, Bettencourt commented that she feels the City employee is doing good work.
“I love Mike Pitcock, he’s awesome,” said Bettencourt. “He does a lot of good things.”
“I’m hoping through this process that if someone has a better alternative, we’re certainly willing to look at that and I think that that would be a positive outcome as well,” said Nascimento. “If we find a better solution to this problem, I’m all ears but at this point it sounds like we have very few options before us and it seems like the best solution to the problem.”
Correction: August 15, 2014
An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that "at least 98 percent of tax revenues would go directly toward street repairs." The correct figure is 100 percent, as a clause providing revenues to the city’s bus system was previously removed from the ordinance .