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Getting rid of Winchester Mystery House model for government

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POSTED October 14, 2009 2:05 a.m.
The Great Recession is a good thing in many ways.

How else, for example, would government – at least local agencies any way – have been forced to seriously re-examine how they do business and make drastic cuts to stay afloat?

No one likes seeing dedicated hard-working park crews, firefighters, street crews, processing clerks, peace officers, and others take pay cuts. Then again, it hurts no less than seeing those in the private sector having to do the same.

Manteca Unified has shed almost $32 million in expenses so far to balance the school budget. The City of Manteca is closing in on $14 million in cuts.

Yes, it has changed the dynamics in the classroom. Reality though is reality. There is simply less money roiling into coffers whether they are private or public sector. This is not an either/or situation. Things have to change.

The City of Manteca spent close to a year rethinking how they delivered services. They reorganized departments, combined job duties, cross-trained, jettisoned positions as people retired, and found ways to reduce everything from energy costs to operational costs. There are a number of long-range projects moving forward to reduce operational costs in future years as well. The rest of the nearly $14 million in cuts, unfortunately, came on the backs of the remaining city workers.

There are some who are demanding the city find more ways to make cuts. It goes without saying staff is trying to find ways to do so because if things get worse- we’re not out of the woods yet – more layoffs will need to be done. The reason is simple. Employee costs are 85 percent of the general fund.

Some of the demands are outright ludicrous, however. One impassioned speaker at the last council meeting chided the council for not reducing all costs as it was obvious from the temperature in the council chambers. It was a nice disconnect from an incident that occurred just 30 minutes earlier where a woman fainted in the jammed council chambers and the meeting stopped while she receive medical attention. The thermostat was lowered after that. Was it a wise move? If they hadn’t lowered the thermostat and someone else fainted, there would have been hell to pay.

It’s much like dealing with a shrinking budget. It is a no-win situation as people are going to passionately hold on to the way things were.

Government has been cobbled together over the years much like the rambling Winchester Mystery House.

It has been added to over time due to growth and/or new regulations and expectations. And just like the Winchester Mystery House that has doors and passages that have no rhyme or reason and serve no earthly purpose, so often has been the manner in which government often conducts business.

Cities are inflicted by the Winchester Mystery House disease but definitely not on the gargantuan scale that the state is. Over the years cities have adjusted to changes in the ebb of expenses and revenues. Manteca was at the edge back in the 1980s when expenses threatened to overwhelm revenue. It forced the city to purchase used CHP vehicles with 90,000 miles on them as front-line patrol vehicles and to keep the fire station that was new at the time on Louise Avenue shuttered as there was no money to man it. Manteca had $1,000 in its general fund reserve.

What came from that was arguably one of the best things ever to happen to Manteca. The Northern San Joaquin Valley’s 3.9 percent growth cap tied to residential sewer allocation doled out in a given year.

The growth cap effectively managed growth and prevented it from overwhelming the city’s services as well as its character and social fabric.

It also opened the door to reality. One simply doesn’t attract retail or job growth by drawing lines on a map. It takes real infrastructure being physically in place, long-term investment in water and sewer and – unfortunately – incentives to snag the big revenue generators that everyone wants.

The city must deal with the cards they are dealt. As far as people hammering away at Measure M, people supported that and they got exactly what was promised. If you doubt that, there would be 23 less officers in Manteca right now instead of just being down 12.

Like it or not, this is a rare opportunity to remake government. Instead of just cutting back, Manteca is trying to recreate its business model so to speak. It is no different than a private enterprise dealing with dropping revenues and increasing expenses.

You can only survive if you keep your head above water.
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