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Reams tapping into increasing frustration over taxes

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POSTED March 25, 2009 4:29 a.m.
Editor, Manteca Bulletin,
Sid Reams generally writes “feel good” columns, sharing meaningful events in his life, giving movie and local restaurant reviews, and publicizing ways to help the homeless. He often relates stories of his own personal experiences and outcomes in efforts to assist those who are down on their luck and usually ends his columns by inviting readers to attend his local church.

Very rarely, a controversial issue will fire him up enough to devote his entire column to the subject. Such is the case with the proposed city utility tax. Sid is definitely not a man who takes kindly to taxes. He and I often disagree politically, but in phone conversations, we treat each other with respect. So it disturbs me to read City Manager Steve Pinkerton’s rebuttal to Sid’s opinion piece on the utility tax, where Pinkerton states, “while the columnist is entitled to his opinion, I think it is only fair that he actually perform a little research before he takes pot shots at the city workforce.”

Sid is a strong advocate of researching facts and verifying information. He is not a sloppy writer who takes “pot shots” for the fun of it. He examined the city salary information published in the Sun Post and formed his own conclusions. Mr. Pinkerton has every right to dispute these conclusions and point out cuts to services and programs and furloughs (which translate to pay cuts) that city employees have agreed upon. But he should do so in a manner that doesn’t resort to using condescending or belittling language. Sid is tapping into the frustration many Manteca citizens feel over the ever-increasing tax burdens they carry. Californians face a rise in state sales tax to help balance the state budget. Asking for further local tax increases strains both people’s tolerance and their wallets.

I agree with Mr. Pinkerton that “government is most effective when it is a collaborative effort between the citizens and its civil servants.” He stresses that “transparency encourages open, honest discussion” and promotes “full information.” He even admits, “there are times when we screw up, and we, as civil servants, would be better served to fess up instead of attempting to justify what we did.” In this spirit, as city manager, he should be able to calmly counter public criticism; however unjustified he feels it to be, with fact and consideration.

I have my own concerns about the utility tax, even though I normally support taxes as a way of paying for both the necessities and amenities of community life. An earlier Bulletin article stated, “Pinkerton noted that the anticipated drop in property tax assessment will put money back into the pockets of homeowners. Pinkerton said the city would probably like to make a case to ask for some of that back in the form of a new tax that would keep service levels from deteriorating further.” But the only ones who realistically might expect a decrease in their property taxes are those who bought houses in Manteca within the last 5 years and who have, unfortunately, seen the value of their homes plummet.

Asking them for “kickback” taxes just seems wrong. Many older established Manteca homeowners won’t see a property tax decline and have little “spare change” in their pockets to give to the city. Why don’t the fees assessed for new growth (housing developments and retail opportunities) help prevent the service levels from deteriorating? Does the fact that city leaders gave huge tax breaks and incentives to Costco and Bass Pro Shops have repercussions here? That strategy may still pay off in the long run, but is of little help now. Remember the developer fee that stayed artificially low at $300 for over 20 years? When city leaders adjusted the rate up to current conditions for a fee over $4,000, developers balked and sued the city. Even though one councilman adamantly assured me, “not a penny more, not a penny less,” on these justified fees, the city council backed down and settled, lessening the rate. How much revenue was lost there? If the city is going to be “transparent,” “honest,” and give “full information,” the impact of these decisions should be openly acknowledged and discussed.

Sadly, plans for tax revenue dollars don’t always work out the way they were first projected. Although the Measure M safety tax has added 10 more police officers in Manteca, Police Chief Dave Bricker now says, “we are still going to implement the plan as presented to voters, but we will delay the actual implementation by a year or so, due to a drop in (half cent) sales tax receipts. So the plan really isn’t the same, since it appears that fewer officers will be hired as originally projected on a consecutive yearly basis. This is a change from the original outline presented to voters. Changes like these, although sometimes born of necessity, nevertheless cause some people to be skeptical and mistrust taxes and tax measures. For this reason, tax measures and other options must be thoughtfully explored and honestly presented without hype or manipulation.
Karen Pearsall
Manteca
March 23, 2009
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