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Early cuts allowed Manteca to keep upright
Finance director credits hard decisions, cooperative employees
When things starting going south with the housing market in early 2008, the City of Manteca took steps to adjust their spending to avoid the fiscal problems many other California cities face today. - photo by HIME ROMERO

It would have been easy for Suzanne Mallory to ride the gravy train of growth that came not long after she signed on as the City of Manteca’s Finance Director 11 years ago.

Within a few years of her hiring the city’s general fund balance – the “discretionary” funds that are used to pay for police and fire as well as anything else the City Council deems necessary  – tripled as 20,000 additional people packed into The Family City.

The building boom was at its peak and showed absolutely no signs of slowing down.

But like Mallory pointed out Thursday night at the meeting of the Manteca Tea Party Patriots, her background in the private sector taught her to remain vigilant and conservative when it comes to preparing for what could be around the corner.

“There are things I wish that we would have done differently – hindsight is always 20/20. But I do all that I can to make sure that we don’t fall off a cliff,” Mallory said. “I continue to remain conservative and stay conservative into the future.

“We can’t get giddy when the economy starts to rebound and think that all is well again.”

And while municipal finance might be complicated for some to understand, the different pools of money took a little bit for the accounting major to get used as well when she first signed on with the city.

According to Mallory, the City of Manteca takes in $86 million in revenue which is spread across 38 separate funds – ranging from enterprise funds like sewer, water and garbage to special revenue funds like Measure M public safety sales tax.

Just under one-third of the revenue generated is funneled into the general fund and 85 percent of that is used to cover the salaries and benefits of municipal workers.

Most people, she said, have the idea that money can simply be taken from one account and moved to another to cover a shortfall or to help pay for a big expense. But as she pointed out, not having a mechanism in place to reimburse the borrowed money – which might not even be legal to begin with – is a slippery slope.

It’s a practice, she said, that some California cities that now find themselves in dire financial straits tried to stave off bankruptcy but quickly found out that the shell game simply wouldn’t work.

Even when Manteca begun to see its revenue dip below the expenditure threshold to create a deficit, the hard decisions by the City Council and the willingness of the workforce to renegotiate helped weather the economic uncertainty of the time. In many cases, employee compensation was reduced well in excess of 20 percent.

“In January of 2009 we were facing an $11.3 million deficit and at that time I had forecasted that by this fiscal year, without changes, we’d be looking at a $16.5 million deficit,” she said. “The city has seven bargaining units and we started to offer incentives for some of the workers who had been at the city – we were forgoing a wealth of information in order to the save the jobs of the rest.

“That early action is what made the difference. I was sick at night back in 2009, but other cities still weren’t planning.”

At the end of the day, Mallory’s strong sense of community and willingness to serve is what drives her. She looks forward to the challenges that serving as the watchful eye of the public’s funds presents on a daily basis.

“This is the community that I raised my girls in – it’s the community where my mother lives and my brother lives,” she said. “I come from a family with a great sense of civic pride, and I have this golden opportunity to serve as the steward of the public’s money and it’s my job to make sure that it’s protected.”