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[whitespace] City nervous about money coming for roads projects

Saratoga--Normally, a cash-strapped city like Saratoga is happy to get any extra money it can get its hands on.

Now, big money is on the way and its imminent arrival is actually making some officials here a little nervous.

Over the past week, city officials have been reporting that major funding from the federal government and from Measures A and B--the sales tax initiative passed by county voters in 1996--is on its way to cities throughout Santa Clara County.

The problem, according to City Manager Larry Perlin, is that Saratoga and all the other cities in the county will have to spend the funds quickly and all at the same time, which could lead to inflated construction costs and a shortage of contractors.

Perlin said he's interpreting the complex language of the provisions to mean that the entire allotment--Saratoga stands to get more than $2 million--will need to be spent by most cities in the county within about two years.

And that could drive up construction costs and make finding qualified contractors to carry out the work difficult, since there are only so many around that can do the job.

With roads projects in Saratoga already moving ahead at full steam, Perlin told the city council Jan. 26 that road projects would have to double the current output to spend the money in the required timeframe.

First, Saratoga is scheduled to receive $220,000 in federal roadway rehabilitation funds. On top of that, the city will receive an extra $880,000 from the federal government for enhancing Saratoga-Sunnyvale Road. The state is planning to turn the well-traveled road over to the city's control soon.

Then the city will get another big dose of cash from the county.

After voters approved Measures A and B in 1996, a string of lawsuits followed, which has tied up the allocation of the money since then.

Since 1996, about $140,000 was supposed to be doled out each year for nine years to the city--and about $90 million county-wide over the nine-year period.

Because of the ongoing litigation, the money was tied up and could now be dumped on Saratoga and other cities, thanks to a couple of cities that have been lobbying to get it all in two years.

If this happens, Saratoga will get more than $620,000 over the next two years from the county. Also, to get this money Saratoga has to come up with a 20-percent match each year, or about $140,000.

Making matters worse, the funds are supposed to be supplemental to the $650,000 the city normally spends each year on roads projects, Perlin said. In one year, the city is going to have to find a way to spend a lot of money that cannot go to any other project in the city except roads.

"On the surface it sounds great, but when you take a step back and start looking at it a little more carefully," Perlin said, "you're doing the public a great disservice."

The city has a long list of projects, such as park development, that the city is putting its efforts into. Doubling the city's attention to roads isn't going to be easy to do, he said.

He said that dumping a huge amount of money on a problem and requiring it to be fixed right away, just to appease taxpayers who want to know where their money is going, isn't going to give those taxpayers "the best bang for their buck" on area roads projects.

Perlin is currently lobbying the Valley Transportation Authority, the agency in charge of allocating the money, in hopes of getting a two-year extension on the time Saratoga has to spend all of its money.

Perlin said that if the city can stretch out expenditures over four years rather than two, the city will have a better opportunity to spend the money more efficiently.

So far, Perlin hasn't heard whether the city can get an extension or not.
Steve Enders

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