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Another cent for police & fire?
Citizen makes pitch for ballot vote, mayor willing to listen
An increase in Manteca crime is prompting some to suggest a sales tax increase. - photo by HIME ROMERO

Manteca Police Chief Nick Obligacion has a problem.

In his professional judgment, Manteca is short nine police officers, two dispatchers and two community service officers. That is how he outlined the department’s staffing needs in a mid-year report to the City Council in February. Obligacion understands there are financial constraints and that it’ll take time for Manteca to generate the revenue from property and sales tax gains to cover the tab.

Fred Millner, for one, doesn’t want to wait. It could take years if not a decade or more to get funding back up to previous per capita levels for municipal services due to depressed property taxes.

That’s why Millner is pitching a ballot measure to let voters decide whether they want to pay for additional police and fire beyond what is provided by the general fund and the current half cent Measure M public safety tax.

In a letter last month to the Bulletin, Millner pointed to the increased crime rate and noted how Measure M is proving to be insufficient. That’s due to a combination of the economic malaise that has reduced projected Measure M receipts while at the same time property tax receipts retreated 17 percent from 2007 levels due to the housing crisis.

“In order for public safety to be number one, more money is needed,” Millner wrote. “Therefore our city council should give serious thought about placing on the ballot when the next election rolls around, to increase the current Measure M tax from its measly ½ cents to a full 1 cent and let the voters decide if they want to pay more for public safety, another ½ cent is not going to bankrupt anyone. This is a small price to pay for public safety. And now with a new fire station going to open in the not too far horizon it is plain to see that additional funding is going to be needed to operate the next fire station as a 24/7 operation. Forget the thought of brownouts, fire stations are built to operate on a full-time basis, not open today, closed tomorrow. Let’s fully staff this new station on a full-time basis. Let the voters decide if they have to pay more for public safety or let things keep dragging on as is the case now.”

Mayor Willie Weatherford agrees with Millner that voters should be given such an option.

“People should be able to decide what level of police and fire protection they want,” Weatherford said.

And given budget constraints with service pared back in other departments to bare minimum and the fact salaries and benefits account for 80 percent of staffing public safety operations, the mayor noted increased sales tax is probably the only viable answer in the foreseeable future to hire more police and fire.

Weatherford, though, said the push for a ballot  measure should come from the public and not the council. And if it does, he would have no problem giving voters the opportunity to decide whether they want to pay for increased public safety staffing.

He did suggest that if that occurred, he’d like to see the measure tailored to make it clear it can only go for new hires and not increase salaries of existing staff.

Manteca’s sales tax now at 8.5 cents

Manteca’s sales tax rate is 8.5 cents per dollar. A penny goes to the city’s general fund, a half cent to public safety, and a half cent to Measure K for road and transit projects. The rest is collected by the state. Lathrop has a 9.0 percent sales tax that generates two pennies of every dollar spent for city services as well as a half cent for transportation spending.

Measure M revenue is lagging behind projections. Currently there are 15 police officers and 12 firefighters paid exclusively with Measure M taxes. The projection in place when voters approved the tax measure called for three additional firefighters by now. Due to the soft economy, however, the retail sales haven’t been strong enough to generate taxes to meet those projections.

City Manager Karen McLaughlin noted sales and property taxes are the two biggest sources for the general funding. While sales tax could come back strong as the economy heals, McLaughlin said the odds of that happening anytime soon for property tax is extremely slim.

“We haven’t made any projections that far out,” McLaughlin said as to when property taxes will return to the peak of $11.1 million in 2007-08.

Property tax receipts this fiscal year are at $8.9 million. In the city’s three-year outlook property taxes could hit $10.2 million.

But as McLaughlin noted construction and new home sales has softened Manteca property tax losses and are also driving the slight gain over last year. Based on current housing and not the 2006 inventory that was the basis for the record $11.1 million in property taxes, the city would need to have over $12.5 million in property taxes to simply bring them back to the same per capita level of seven years ago.

The Measure M account currently spends $2.6 million a year to pay the salaries and benefits of 15 police officers as well as $2.2 million for the benefits and salaries of 12 firefighters. Measure M, though, is now bringing in $4.2 million a year. The $600,000 shortfall is being paid from a $3.6 million reserve balance that was built up to cushion against revenue drops.

Manteca also has to figure a way eventually pay for the four-officer gang unit once funding from the endowment account established by developers for public safety is exhausted. Originally Manteca was hiring just one officer off the interest. The council, though, decided it was imperative to do something about the gang problem before it got worse. The end result is the city has been able to put a partial lid on gang violence compared to where it was at in June.

Measure M picked up the salaries of four officers that were being paid by a federal grant. If it hadn’t been for the grant 16 and not 12 officers would have lost their jobs in 2008.   That grant required the four positions to be kept by the city once federal funding ran out.

Currently the department has 63 sworn officers including command staff. There are 26 non-sworn employees including four part-time workers.

What chief says is needed now

The positions the chief hopes to staff in the coming years plus why they are needed is as follows:

• Two more patrol officers.

That would bring patrol staffing to 33 officers. It would allow the department to maintain current staffing levels. It would also reduce excess overtime forced by vacation, holidays, and mandated training.

• Two more dispatchers.

It would bring the rank of dispatchers to 12. Current call volume and the addition of the Gang Suppression Unit are impacting the capabilities of the current dispatching staff.

• Four officers for special assignment.

One officer would be added to traffic, one to the Streets Crime Unit, one to the Gang Suppression Unit and the other to detectives. Traffic officers are now having a difficult time keeping up with the requests for specific enforcement. While they do respond, time in each area is limited. The streets crime unit currently handles some quality of life issues at a time such as narcotics. An additional officer would allow the creation of two teams. An additional gang officer would broaden the unit’s impact. Another detective would bring the assigned follow-up caseload to a more manageable level. Priority is given to cases where those suffering the worst as victims are addressed first. Low-level cases are still being investigated but there is a significant backlog.

• Two school resource officers.

There is no school resource officer assigned to feeder schools although reserves officers are now being used thanks to funding from community service groups. The addition of two officers would bring the SRO ranks up to six.

• Services division lieutenant.

Currently all three investigation sergeants for detectives, the gang unit, and street crimes report directly to the services division captain as do both dispatch supervisors, records supervisors and code enforcement supervisor. As a result of the load, the investigation units tend to run autonomously much of the time.

The request for additional positions will be taken into account during budgeting for the fiscal year starting July 1.