Modesto, county officials have big plans for stimulus money

Thirteen million dollars to widen McHenry Avenue between Modesto and Escalon. Four and a half million dollars for a Pelandale Avenue bike path. Five hundred thousand dollars for outdoor education at Modesto Junior College's west campus. Two hundred thousand dollars to expand Stanislaus County's ESL programs.

Asked what might be accomplished with federal stimulus money, city and county officials are dreaming big. They see idled workers retrieving their tools to fashion solar panels and emergency shelters, more training for future nurses and lots of refurbished streets, freeway interchanges and sewage treatment plants.

People in the private sector are looking forward to the stimulus funding, too.

"If they've got new money available, I would like to go in comfort," said Demetrius Hull, 35, of Modesto, about the new buses that leaders hope to buy.

Oakdale wants a skate park. Ceres school officials envision solar panels at every school. Ripon hopes to snag a new garbage truck. Modesto figures its sewage gases could be burned to produce electricity.

Most of these dreams would take years to design and finance. But the lure of stimulus funding, with a goal of reviving the economy in short order, comes with a demand that projects get off the ground soon. Many could be rejected without a promise to spend the funds by February.

While federal agencies decide how to pass out the money, California asked its regions to compile lists of potential projects.

"The state's trying to get ideas so they can hit the ground running when the money becomes available," said Mike Dozier, lead executive of the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley's secretariat. His office drew the task of forming a list for agencies throughout the valley's eight counties, from Lodi to Bakersfield.

The counties and 55 of their 62 cities responded to an urgent call for wish lists. Stanislaus County and its nine cities submitted 326 ideas for spending $1.32 billion and creating 1.37 million jobs.

The valleywide list shows 2,412 potential projects that would cost more than $9 billion and create 11 million jobs.

Details need to be addressed

Did we just say 11 million jobs, in a valley with fewer than 4 million people?

"Well, that is a little more than ridiculous," Dozier allowed Friday. "I look at this as a real needs assessment for the valley. And this showed that the city and county agencies can collaborate."

He acknowledged that frenzied information processing, with its thousands of moving parts, "is not infallible." For instance, the spreadsheets put on the Internet by his office last week contain isolated instances of confusion over which county is home to Modesto, Oakdale, Patterson, Riverbank, Waterford and Turlock.

Another entry shows $38 million requested for 206 units of low-income housing called Stonegate Shire somewhere in Stanislaus County. Rick Robinson, the county's chief executive, had never heard of it and, after searching for a couple of hours Friday, could find nobody who had.

"My guess is it probably got mixed up and is not in Stanislaus County," Robinson said.

Another entry has the county requesting $35 million for an unknown project whose description contains only the words "construction of the new."

Aiming high ... really high

The spreadsheets show Newman requesting $335 million for projects, compared with Modesto's $218 million. Somebody added three zeroes to a whole bunch of Newman's estimates, said public works director Garner Reynolds. That resulted in a $100,000 price to resurface about four blocks of L Street becoming a $100 million project.

And Newman's fondest dream for a $3 million downtown plaza shows up in three places on the spreadsheets.

Errors aside, "This is really important to us," said Newman City Manager Michael Holland, "especially in these times when property and sales tax are declining."

County leaders would welcome any money. "To the extent we're building infrastructure and creating new capital projects, we're creating new jobs," Robinson said.

The entry showing Ceres Unified School District's $44 million request for solar panels at its 17 schools was not a typo. "We were told to wish for the stars," said district spokesman Jay Simmonds.

Some agencies are joining others to give projects extra muscle. For example, Merced, Madera and Fresno counties want $11 million for a new hospice campus.

Dozier's office will continue to refine the wish lists before submitting a final version to state officials in June. Local agencies should be well-positioned, then, when the federal money begins to flow, he said.

Although many agencies concentrated on road projects, they already have received stimulus money from another pot that can be used only for transportation.

Stanislaus County and its nine cities, for example, received $10 million this year through their transportation planning agency, the Stanislaus Council of Governments. Last week, California Department of Transportation officials announced an additional $11 million heading our way.

"Great news," said StanCOG's executive director, Vince Harris. "More funding, more projects."

StanCOG distributed the earlier money among its agencies according to a formula. Its policy board members will decide how to split the new cash at a coming meeting, perhaps May 13, Harris said.

Merced County and its cities will receive $10.2 million, bringing new sidewalks to downtown Gustine and reconstructed roads in Livingston, among other projects.

State legislators' haste to secure the stimulus money, however, resulted in less for some smaller counties and more for larger ones, said Candice Steelman of the Merced County Association of Governments. Her agency lost out on $2 million indicated on previous estimates, she said, before state lawmakers approved Assembly Bill 3x 20.

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Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or 578-2390.

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