KEYES — A majority of property owners voted Tuesday to keep street-lights on, agreeing to quintuple a utility rate rather than let their town go dark.
After 45 minutes of hand-counting ballots, the Keyes Community Services District announced to a standing-room-only audience that the idea of higher taxes had captured 199 "yes" votes, or 56.7 percent, against 152 "no" votes, or 43.3 percent.
Yearly assessments per parcel will go from $10 to $46.56, with subsequent raises of about a dollar a year until reaching $51.09 in 2014.
"I don't see how people can complain about that," Ricardo Barraza said before the tabulation. "It's scary at night."
No one cheered or booed. More than 50 people crammed into the district's small meeting room, but few spoke during a protest hearing before the votes were counted.
John Peace, who owns three lots in the older section of Keyes, noted a lack of street lamps there compared with relatively well-lit newer subdivisions. Everyone pays the same amount but some see less benefit, he reasoned.
"I don't like the discussion of 'this part' and 'that part,' " said board member Davie Landers Jr. "We are one community. We are not divided."
He and others promised to eventually install lamp posts in older Keyes.
The district first must get its feet back under it. The current $10 tax covers only one-fourth the cost of services, most of which is electricity for 161 street lamps.
"We're looking at plain and simple bankruptcy" without the fee increase, board member Harinder Grewal said.
Resident Roy Winters asked why the street-lighting district had fallen so far behind. Board president Henry Benavides blamed it on "past boards. We've collected their problem," he said.
Tuesday's approval percentage was similar to the outcome of Measure P two years ago, when 55.31 percent of Keyes voters agreed to double rates. District leaders mistakenly thought that was good enough and billed accordingly before realizing months later that they needed two-thirds approval, or 66.67 percent.
This time, they asked property owners instead of registered voters, triggering a rule requiring a simple majority for victory.
Another difference: Instead of the district sending bills, the fee from now on will be added to property taxes collected by Stanislaus County.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2390.