Local Election

Will Merced County support new sales tax to fix local roads?

A motorist drives along a pothole-filled section of Griffith Avenue in Delhi on Tuesday, April 12, 2016.
A motorist drives along a pothole-filled section of Griffith Avenue in Delhi on Tuesday, April 12, 2016. akuhn@mercedsun-star.com

Advocates for a half-cent sales tax to improve roads say they’re struggling to sell the importance of becoming a so-called “self-help” county.

Advocates say counties like Fresno and Tulare have benefited from being self-help, in which the county has a sales tax it can use to match state and federal dollars. Counties like Merced and Stanislaus, which are not self-help jurisdictions, are left hoping they can pick up whatever federal and state funding is left over after self-help counties draw from the well, they say.

“People don’t get ‘self-help,’ ” Bill Spriggs, Merced’s former mayor, said Tuesday. “I think people get L.A. and San Francisco are stealing our money.”

It’s no secret Merced County’s roads need repair, but area leaders say there’s just no money to follow through on fixes. To that end, the November ballot carries Measure V, the half-cent tax estimated to pool about $450 million over 30 years, according to the plan.

Self-help counties are more likely to pull down federal and state funding, and that’s why the freeway systems in places like Fresno and Los Angeles outperform Merced’s, Spriggs said.

The Measure V money would also be untouchable by the state and would stay within Merced County.

Advocates said they toyed with letting the measure get to the ballot without much fanfare, because an early poll showed support for the idea. About 71 percent of likely voters said they would support a half-cent sales tax that would generate about $15 million a year across the county, according to the survey delivered in December from San Mateo-based Godbe Research, a firm hired by Merced County Association of Governments.

Since then, the measure has begun to draw some outspoken detractors. The lack of support is mind-boggling, former Merced County Supervisor Kathleen Crookham said.

“What’s even more frustrating to me is people who live here and go to Fresno to shop,” she said. “You’re paying the tax for Fresno to help their roads get built. You’re so short-sighted, you’re not realizing you’re short-changing your own county.”

Not everyone is convinced, and that matters because the measure needs 67 percent of the vote to pass.

Leaders in Livingston and Los Banos have questioned how the plan would benefit their cities. Atwater gave the measure half-hearted support, voting to put it on the ballot while saying leaders were not endorsing the plan.

Los Banos Mayor Mike Villalta said being a self-help county is good, but he can’t support Measure V. “I need more guarantees,” he said, adding he would like to see a list of specific projects that would benefit from the funding.

The MCAG board of directors includes all five county supervisors, he said, so cities like Los Banos have little power in the ultimate decision-making on projects. The supervisors can get the support of a single West Side board member – from Gustine or Dos Palos – to send money to the east side.

Villalta said even if the east side of the county pays the West Side back with interest, it sets back West Side projects, raising the cost for construction.

He also said that Los Banos would be better off having its own local measure. The city would pull in an estimated $2.4 million, dwarfing its $767,000 a year from the county plan, he said.

“Our money has to stay in Los Banos, and we have to have control of our destiny,” he said.

Thaddeus Miller: 209-385-2453, @thaddeusmiller