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The fight over Manteca’s fiscal future

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POSTED April 15, 2009 4:46 a.m.
Go out along Wellington Avenue on a Wednesday or Thursday morning and you’ll see two to five men at work.

They are the reason why the bikeway landscaping and sound walls  almost seem as if they are part of the set on “Pleasantville”, the idyllic town in the movie by the same name where two 1990s teenager find themselves in the middle of a 1950s sitcom.

Farther and you’re in Woodward Park, a well-groomed 52-acre complex that has the feel as something you’re more likely to find on “The Truman Show” than in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

Those two segments of Manteca’s world are about to be jarred by the fallout of the pending $11.3 million budget deficit that the city is facing in the upcoming fiscal year.

This is where one of the biggest remaining battle grounds left in the bid to come up with the remaining $2 million to $4 million in needed cuts will take place. This is also where a key decision directing the financial destiny of Manteca for years, if not decades, to come will be made.

On one side is the community park supported by the general fund, which is the only municipal account in deficit spending. The other is part of 34 landscape maintenance districts supported by specific taxes within specific areas for a specific level of maintenance and upkeep.

The city – after years of insisting it wasn’t feasible to do so – now wants to take over maintenance of the districts in order to shift $250,000 into the general fund to essentially preserve park maintenance jobs. The city brass figure they can maintain the current level of landscape maintenance in the 34 special districts and retain staff needed to keep parks up although the level of upkeep will be down a notch or two at many of the nearly 50 municipal parks.

Manteca’s park workers have a stellar and cost-efficient record of keeping the parks up. That, however, isn’t the point. The City Council is being asked to essentially raid a special district formed for one purpose only and now use it indirectly to support parks that are a general fund function.

It’s not quite that simplistic as the city would argue the “profit” that the private contractor would normally get would be siphoned off and into the city’s park maintenance effort through retaining workers. At the same time, they will tell you that they have more resources they can deploy to do a quicker and as efficient job keeping districts up.

All of that may be true but it isn’t true just because the city says so.

Manteca Mayor Willie Weatherford opened the door to the correct way to proceed – make the city bid for each district against private contactors. The issue here for the thousands of Manteca property owners impacted is whether they are getting the best deal for the dollar. They are not a plum to pick. The districts were formed legally to serve only one purpose and that wasn’t to be an n emergency cash fund for the city.

The city needs to bid on each district and they need to be the lowest responsible bidder, period, in order to receive the work and the money.

And since the city is essentially trying to raid the money for other purposes when they are the oversight to make sure it is spent correctly, the council needs to appoint a committee of perhaps three or five volunteer citizens to periodically monitor the quality of the upkeep in the landscape maintenance districts. They should report periodically directly to the City Council on whether the private contractor or the city – whoever is awarded the bid for the particular district – is doing a proper job.

If not, you’ll essentially have the wolf guarding the hen house.

On one hand, if the city just takes over maintenance and pockets the money they are sending a clear signal that they’re all about preserving municipal jobs.

However, if the city goes out to bid and secures the work for park crews or else awards it to a private sector firm based on the lowest responsible bid they are telling the world they are all about providing the most effective city services at the best price.

There is a big difference between the two objectives yet they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
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