Even during a bludgeoning recession, when construction is mostly a forgotten dream, getting everyone to agree on how growth should pay for itself is a struggle.
Four concerned city managers set aside budget ulcers and other worries Tuesday to engage Stanislaus County supervisors in a public debate over development fees. The tone was mostly cordial and constructive, but most players acknowledged that the two-year effort to revise fees has become a major headache.
The largest and most contentious component — how to fairly collect and spend fees for new roads — remains unresolved. The county and its nine cities will continue knocking heads in hopes of producing some sort of compromise in the next three months.
All nine city managers recently signed a letter to the county recommending more collaboration. The cities and county "must think differently than we have in the past," the letter reads. "We are at the junction where changes to our current approach and a paradigm shift need to occur."
The phrase "herding cats" popped up more than once during Tuesday's hearing, where city managers Roy Wasden of Turlock, Cleve Morris of Patterson and Michael Holland of Newman urged cooperation and fairness. Waterford's Chuck Deschenes also attended.
"We're not opposed to paying fees as long as they're equitable," Holland said.
Some outlying cities, particularly those in the south and west corners of the county, oppose a formula dedicating much of the new roads fee component to the North County Corridor, a freeway that will link Highway 99 at Salida to Highway 108 east of Oakdale.
Also disputed is how much to charge small cities welcoming new stores, whose fees could be linked to the additional traffic they will draw, according to the county's rationale. Some cities, including Waterford, Newman and Patterson, say their residents would travel county roads less if they have more shopping choices in their home towns.
Wasden noted that about 78 percent of people throughout the county live in its cities, as opposed to unincorporated areas. He predicted developers will exploit weaknesses in the county's formulas and build outside cities where fees are cheaper.
"I want to meaningfully engage," Wasden said, asking for more time to study the county's proposal on all development fees.
But supervisors unanimously voted to move ahead on all components except for roads. Most projects would pay lower fees when the revision becomes effective May 31 because fees are tied to plummeting land values. Exceptions are new warehouses, which would pay more.
Some county leaders said cities' views on road fees are too narrow. Supervisor Jim DeMartini, who represents the West Side, said Newman could spend 70 years collecting enough local fees to widen Stuhr Road; pooling fees collected all over the county could produce a project much faster, he said.
Rick Robinson, the county's chief executive officer, noted that pooled money paid about $10 million to fix roads required for Patterson's Keystone Pacific Business Park. The same pot, which has collected $161 million plus $28 million in interest in 20 years, improved Geer Road, benefiting small communities on the county's east end, he said.
"You can't look at long-term projects based on a snapshot in time," Robinson said.
Added DeMartini: "You have to look at the county as a whole, not just where the money is going today. Tomorrow it's going somewhere else."
Public facilities fees also pay for new jails, libraries, parks and more.
In their joint letter, the city managers urged exploring a roads fee administered by the Stanislaus Council of Governments, a transportation planning agency made up of representatives from the county and its cities.
"I have little confidence in StanCOG being able to accomplish anything," DeMartini said,
Supervisor Bill O'Brien, whose district includes Oakdale, Riverbank and Waterford, said the debate points up a critical need for comprehensive planning throughout the county.
"We're almost better off without growth if we don't have a growth management plan," O'Brien said. "If we can't figure out where we're going, why do we continue to do this?"
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2390.