Darkness is a criminal's friend.
When the sun goes down in tough neighborhoods, blood pressure goes up in homes. People worry when they can't see what might be coming.
That's the principal reason Juanita Jackson had three streetlights erected about three decades ago on her block in an unincorporated pocket of west Modesto. She still pays from her own wallet to keep the lights on.
"Being able to see your total environment gives you a sense of security," Jackson said. "Otherwise, you're sitting in a vacuum of darkness."
Jackson owns a home where her granddaughter lives, around the corner on Marshall Avenue. When neighbors started talking about taxing themselves for new streetlights there, Jackson jumped in.
One of the county's top elected officials, Supervisor Jeff Grover, eventually joined the group, walking up and down Marshall on a Saturday morning to drum up interest. Among 34 homes, they gathered signatures of support from 20.
Their effort paid off Tuesday when supervisors voted unanimously to help the neighborhood get started by dedicating some upfront investment costs.
That was essential, because even though a majority of neighbors were willing to pay nearly $40 a year, they would find it next to impossible to come up with $3,200 in start-up fees. That includes an $800 state Board of Equalization filing fee, $1,000 in administrative costs and $1,400 for a year of electricity.
"That would kill every single deal you come across," said Grover, noting similar unincorporated neighborhoods sprinkled throughout south and west Modesto. Most sprung up 50 and 60 years ago, when county leaders did not insist on standards common to cities, including streetlights, sidewalks, water lines and municipal sewers.
Officials say more than 21,000 people live in Modesto's 26 unincorporated pockets, or islands surrounded by the city.
The county and Modesto have spent five years defending a race discrimination lawsuit brought by residents of four predominantly Latino unincorporated neighborhoods. Federal appeals justices recently said local government showed no bias for infrastructure failures, but they ordered a trial on slow law enforcement response times, barriers to annexation and fair housing claims.
Back to Marshall Avenue, where working-class families want more security, are willing to tax themselves an extra $3.23 per month but can't afford $3,200 in upfront costs.
Grover offered to cover the bill using the county's Community Development Fund. That's a reincarnation of the former Economic Development Bank, which supervisors created nine years ago to help boost infrastructure in towns and unincorporated communities.
Leaders put $1.5 million a year into the bank for several years but didn't get many requests for projects. So the five supervisors two years ago redirected most of the accumulated money into the Community Development Fund and gave each supervisor control over one-fifth of the total, as long as four of the five agree.
Since then, the fund has paid for sidewalks along west Modesto's Martin Luther King Jr. Drive ($64,120), a cleanup drive in Modesto's Airport Neighborhood ($5,000), a countywide growth plan ($100,000), an incentive program for sidewalks in Keyes ($60,000) and forming a storm drain taxing district in Empire ($5,000).
And the fund is Marshall Avenue's ticket for paying the Modesto Irrigation District to install five streetlights along Marshall, north of California Avenue and south of Truman Avenue.
On Tuesday, county officials opened and counted special ballots cast by owners of Marshall's 34 parcels, to see if they would pay $38.80 per year in maintenance costs. Only two voted "no," and the Marshall Avenue Lighting District was born.
"We're out of that dark, black hole," Jackson said after the vote. Installation will take a few weeks; county Public Works Director Matt Machado promised they'll be in place by Christmas.
Also Tuesday, Supervisor Vito Chiesa persuaded his colleagues to spend $42,000 from the same Community Development Fund to keep streetlights on in Keyes. But that vote, though unanimous, drew caustic comments from board Chairman Jim DeMartini.
The independent Keyes Community Services District, formed in 1955, doubled streetlight assessments this year after mistakenly thinking that a ballot measure had passed. The district apologized and said people will get credits while the district prepares to conduct a do-over election that could quintuple yearly taxes, from $10 to as much as $50.
"This is not a handout; it's a hand up," said Rick Robinson, the county's chief executive officer. "Otherwise, they would be forced to simply shut off the lights and go home."
But DeMartini pointed to yearly power and maintenance costs of $25,500, while the district bills only $11,125. He objected to Chiesa having framed the $42,000 payment as a "bridging loan."
"This is a handout," DeMartini countered. "It isn't a loan. It's a flat-out giveaway for a district that hasn't taken care of its financial needs."
The county's money would keep Keyes' 176 streetlights on for 18 months and pay for an engineer's report and legal costs to set up the election.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2390.