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The debate on moving City Hall back downtown

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POSTED September 13, 2010 3:11 a.m.
The debate about whether city hall should be moved lock, stock, and barrel to downtown is a bit silly.

It’s not that the idea is preposterous in itself. The problem is it is out-of-synch for the times.

What is difficult for virtually everyone to grasp is that things aren’t going to go back any time soon to the way they were. The future crush of promised pensions will financially stress almost every government agency - save entities such as South San Joaquin Irrigation District - for decades and decades to come.

The economic reset driven by the burst housing bubble will substantially alter the financial pipeline to provide municipal services for years if not decades to come. The expansion - in part was fueled by wealth that really did not exist in the form of increased housing equity. True, you could take money out of homes based on market value but a home - like anything else - is only with what you can sell it for and not what you could sell it for. That is why home equity lines based on perceived increases in value and not only on the pay down of principal was essentially speculation.

The expanding balloon meant cities could charge fees as needed to cover the cost of serving growth without anyone doing a lot of squawking as doing so would just slow down the money express that once was the business of building new homes. In most cases, fees and property taxes alone rarely have covered the growth bill for any California city.

It is going to be an epic struggle from here on out to get fees to match costs of growth especially since ultimately any slowdown in housing construction driven by cost factors ultimately will worsen California’s perennial housing shortage that is now being masked by the foreclosure crisis.

In short, all cities will have less in growth fees as well as in other revenue sources to provide basic services.

Manteca today has 80 less municipal employees than they did two years ago despite the city growing by more than 2,200 residents during the same time period.

While a case could be made there’s a space shortage at the Civic Center or may be in the relatively short range it begs a few questions since the city must borrow either against future growth fees or by floating bonds or imposing new taxes for specific infrastructure. This is especially true since the state in the 1990s changed redevelopment law to prohibit local government from using RDA funds to help underwrite city hall buildings: Is it more valuable for Manteca residents to have an intact City Hall or to have a new library? Is a new animal shelter more important than a new City Hall?

Also why does City Hall need to be intact anyway? Wouldn’t it make sense to put parks and recreation offices at a place where people access city recreation services such as at a future community center? The Internet and phones can keep departments that interact on a high degree in contact on a daily basis. Witness the city’s personnel services that are now located off the Civic Center Campus. In fact, instead of building a new City Hall when the time comes it may make more sense to lease or buy nearby office property that already exists. That way it avoids creating blight in and around 1001 W. Center St. which is what would happen if you moved City Hall today.

What might be a great boost for one part of Manteca could sell another part down the river.

Then there is always the question of thinking out of the box to streamline operations even further instead of thinking you just need to build a bigger box to house city operations as Manteca grows.

There is one thing, though, to keep in mind if the movement to return City Hall downtown gains traction and that’s the fabled foot traffic.

Yes, there are city employees who may opt to eat out downtown if City Hall was located there. But the overwhelming amount of traffic that ends up at City Hall is to go to the finance department either to pay their utility bills at the last possible moment or to try and get a payment in before their water is shut off.

That’s not saying everyone who pays their utility bills at the last possible second is in financial trouble but a lot of them aren’t exactly flush.

The ripple effect on the downtown economy would be minimal at best.

Downtown needs an anchor much like Orchard Valley has Bass Pro Shops and JC Penney. In the long run if large properties that can easily be cobbled together are developed it should be something in the retail sector that would attract people in a spending mood and not someone trying to make a utility payment.

The year 2010 is not 1965. The world has changed and will continue to change.

Whether Manteca even ever needs another City Hall is probably debatable as the trend should be looking on how to do things differently given the vastly changed financial realities.
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