Government / Politics

County Chamber members meet at new hotel, hear bleak outlook for roads

Hollister and county officials discussed the future of roads. The news was not encouraging

The San Benito County Chamber of Commerce on July 12 was the first organization to use the conference room of newly-opened Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott on Gateway Drive in Hollister. Chamber President/CEO Juli Vieira said eight people had to be turned away for lack of room, but the fact that the hotel let the group of local business leaders use the room free softened any initial hiccups.

“We’re holding the event in order to talk about our roads within the city and county,” Vieira said. “We thought coming to the Fairfield would be a great way for everybody to see the hotel. It’s great that the hotel is here, which was needed for some time. The Chamber kept track of how much we sent to Gilroy, which was about $750,000 worth of rooms over 12 months.”

There were four speakers for the hour-and-a-half luncheon: Mary Gilbert, executive director of Council of San Benito County Governments (COG); Mike Chambless, the management services director who wears many hats for the city, one of them being in charge of street maintenance; Louie Valdez, county analyst; and Mark Medina, county supervisor for District 4.

Gilbert explained that COGs throughout the state operate as the regional transportation planning agencies with boards of directors made up of government representatives from each city and county within their jurisdictions. She said COG’s role is long-range regional planning of transportation needs and told the group that funding for roads primarily comes from the federal government through fuel excise taxes, along with a 12 cents per gallon state gas tax, 20 cents a gallon diesel tax, and truck weight fees, which will go into effect Nov. 1. Increases in vehicle registration will begin Jan. 2018. There will also be a fee on all-electric vehicles beginning in 2020.

“Locally, we’ve established a regional traffic impact fee program in the county, and that’s where new development is charged a fee for its impacts to help pay for roadway improvements in the county,” she said. “Another local tool are sales taxes for transportation.”

Gilbert related how COG and others were unsuccessful in trying to get Measure P, a half-cent tax for roads, passed on the June 2016 ballot, but said another attempt will be made in 2020 to try again to convince voters for the need of a one cent sales tax. Regarding highway project updates, she said the Highway 156 project that would expand the highway between Hollister and San Juan Bautista has been delayed until late 2019. Once completed, it will create a four-lane highway, while the existing road will become a frontage road for local businesses, farms and residential use.

“The project is fully-funded and there are local traffic impact fees of about $9.6 million going into it,” she said. “That’s new residential and business developments that’s contributing to that. The state is funding the balance.”

Gilbert explained that the four lanes will go from The Alameda in San Juan Bautista to the intersection at Union/Mitchell Road. Knowing that locals will believe this will just push the traffic to back up to the intersection, she said COG is looking at ways to fund a project at the intersection near Hollister because it is not part of the Caltrans project. However, she explained that care must be taken so as not to trigger another environmental study that may slow down the four-lane build-out any further than has already happened.

Chambless said he is responsible for the parks department, the streets department, that he fixes all the city government buildings, and he manages the airport, risk management, utilities, water and landscaping. When it comes to keeping up with street maintenance, he said he has four full-time and two part-time employees. He explained there are two funding resources for the streets, the General Fund and gas taxes. The gas tax pays for lighting and street repairs until expenditures exceed revenues, then the General Fund is tapped to pay for everything beyond that.

He said the city council recently allocated $2.4 million for road maintenance. Of that, $204,000 will go to overtime, $135,000 for thermal plastic markings, $150,000 for filling cracks, $50,000 for filling potholes, $75,000 for Americans with Disabilities Act improvements, and $15,000 to replace street signs. Ultimately, though, there will only be about $1.7 million left over to pay for a road project.

“We’ve been looking at that $1.7 million to repair San Felipe Road and San Benito Street from the airport all the way up to Fourth Street,” he said. “If there’s any money left over, we’re looking at paving South Street between San Benito to West Street.”

Valdez went through a lengthy explanation of county projects, impact fees and sales tax revenues and growth within the county. He explained the dilemma of how the county is faced with trying to maintain 673 miles of roads, all of which are considered below standard. He told the group that it would take more than $390 million to repair all the roads, that the county doesn’t have the money and there will not be anything approaching that amount from the state or federal government.

“We are not receiving any funding for the county that is sufficient to address the needs to maintain the roads,” he said. “The state gas tax that we received last year, which was approximately $118,000, is not going to be nearly enough to address those needs.”

The only option the county has is to prioritize all the roads and try to manage the money as best as they can, Valdez said. He told the group of the study the supervisors just approved to determine how much damage was being done to the roads by garbage trucks going to and from the John Smith Landfill.

He said the supervisors are considering a sales tax in the unincorporated areas or a bond to cover various projects, such as the jail expansion

“The primary source of funding is going to be impact fees,” he said. “They have not been updated for quite a number of years in San Benito County. We are in the process of working with an outside consultant to update those to try to get more revenue.”

The paradox in collecting impact fees for homes and business under construction, he explained, is that none of the money can be spent toward existing issues, but only for future needs. This most likely flies in the face of reason to those who voice their opposition on social media to growth in favor of repairing roads first.

Richard Ferreira echoed many residents’ dismay in how much money has been spent on studies.

“You know you’ve got these problems, so why don’t you take that money and fix some of the roads,” he asked. “And instead of putting impact fees on new homes you should be trying to recruit a tax base into our county. We do not have a tax base here and we’re doing nothing to create one.”

Valdez said he did not disagree with Ferreira. He said the county is most likely the lowest in the state regarding property tax levels. He said the county only receives 11 cents of every property tax dollar, while other counties receive much more, including San Francisco, which receives 83 cents on the dollar.

“From an economic development point, it’s very important to increase the tax base here,” Valdez said in agreement. “But to do that we need to find out what the problems are so we can address them in a systematic way.”

Richard Goozh said the issues with Highways 25 and 156 needed to be resolved and both the county and city need to stop putting barriers in the way of businesses thinking of locating there.

“Once they move here, the tax base will go up every year,” he said. “Not just the one time for these impact fees. You need to work together to solve these roadway problems, then everything will begin to fix itself and the tax base will go up naturally.”

Valdez responded, “There’s never going to be a way for any county to build themselves out of the traffic congestion that now exists. It’s just not going to happen. There are just too many cars on the roads. What we can do is plan intelligently to mitigate those types of issues going forward.”

He said the problem is more complicated than “just saying it’s too expensive to come here,” and that the simple truth is that the county has few revenue-generating options.

Goozh said he believed the problem was one of politics and marketing.

“Can you look at the business park where Teknova is and tell me the last time a building was built there for a new business?” he asked rhetorically.

Medina, however, had the answer, “2002.”

“Fifteen years since somebody’s made a decision to move to that business park,” Goozh said. “That says it all.”

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]