Ben Cantu as a 6 year-old learned to swim at the Lincoln Park pool back when Manteca had 8,242 residents.
That was more than 60 years ago.
Cantu has grown up and is now mayor.
Manteca’s grown too. It is closing in on 90,000 residents in the next few years.
But as Cantu has been relentlessly reminding everyone who will listen a lot of city amenities and even municipal manpower levels needed to provide day-to-day services are stuck in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.
The city’s one and only swimming pool is still at Lincoln Park.
It has never been expanded.
And the city lacks the estimated $2 million needed to bring it up to 2022 standards. And to expand its footprint to the size of a typical public swimming pool it would cost $4 million.
The same is true of the library built in 1962, the police station built in the 1980s, and a long laundry list of civic amenities.
“It should never have taken 30 years to build an animal shelter or 40 years to build a city vehicle maintenance facility,” Cantu noted.
The animal shelter for decades was in the small block building that now houses the solid waste division offices. The city’s vehicle maintenance was housed in a converted horse barn for 60 years complete with leaky roofs and inadequate space that forced crews to work on trucks and police cars under tarps outside to fend off rain.
Cantu has made addressing the inability of Manteca that tied with neighboring Tracy in 2020 as the third fastest growing city in California to keep up with growth his unwavering mantra since getting elected mayor three years ago.
The mayor said such an effort had to start with two key undertakings — getting Manteca’s financial house in order and addressing what he termed as the previous “complacent, self-serving or lazy” city management.
Cantu, who is seeking a second term in November, said the wholesale departure of senior management during the first two years if his term that some described as “the purge” was not of his doing.
“I had nothing to do with getting rid of department heads,” Cantu said Friday in providing an annual recap of the state of the city. “They got rid of themselves.”
The city manager is the only one with the authority to hire and fire department heads. Cantu noted the council established expectations for the city that the city manager implements. Their departure, Cantu inferred, whether they resigned or agreed to “mutually part ways” was based on their inability or refusal to move Manteca forward working as a team with the city manager who had the ultimate say about their status.
Cantu now believes the management team the city has in the place is on the right page but there is still a culture that needs to be changed.
“I design and build things,” Cantu said. "The projects can get done in less than 1½ years even having to go through the city.”
The mayor said the municipal bureaucracy fails repeatedly at moving projects forward in a timely manner. Cantu said the culture needs to change.
Cantu said his 20 plus years working as a Manteca municipal planner gave him insight on how the bureaucracy operates in not just a comfort zone but in a bubble that insulates it often times from community concerns and issues.
The other key issue is Manteca’s financial issues.
“I’ve always known there was something wrong,” Cantu said. “It shouldn’t take a growing city like Manteca 30 years to build an animal shelter.”
After he was elected, Cantu pushed hard and relentlessly for an exhaustive financial audit. When it was finally done, it unearthed a long list of financial missteps. The city wasn’t keeping the general ledger current. Each department was essentially operating its own books. There was $68 million the city couldn’t properly account for due to funds being placed in the wrong accounts or expenses entered more than once.
There was also unauthorized inter-fund borrowing going around where upwards of $20 million was taken from fees collected for things such as road improvements paid for sewer and water projects. Not only did that mean pressing street work couldn’t be funded but water and sewer fees were kept artificially low. They now have to be reset and increased significantly not just to reflect true costs of operating the water and sewer system but to repay the unauthorized loans as required by state law.
The mayor said over the years he has seen city leaders — both elected and on staff — “time and time again” identify a problem, hire a consultant, balk at raising revenue to pay for whatever is proposed, not follow through, and then shelf the study they paid to have done.
Cantu who agrees the city needs more manpower said staff hires too many consultants when what the city needs is manpower in house that is charged with getting things done.
“I’m simply trying it fix the problem that’s been going on for decades,” Cantu said.
And because the unearthing of the city’s financial mess came on his watch from a thorough audit done at his insistence that led to the proverbial rock be turned over to see what was under it, there are a number of people that blame Cantu for the city hall’s financial mess.
Cantu indicated if they want to blame him, that’s fine. Even if it ultimately costs him re-election that is also OK with Cantu. That’s because Cantu said he is doing the right thing to fix internal problems that has undermined every effort to provide amenities and collect the appropriate share from growth through fees to pay for them as well as maintain basic services
Instead of trying to appease people, Cantu said he wants to be part of an effort to identify and put remedies in place that will allow Manteca a going forward to doing more than just “an OK job” for its citizens.
“My goal has been identify the problem and then fix the problem,” the mayor said.
In doing so Cantu said the city will be positioned to move forward to start whittling away at a long list of needs and wants.
“I’m not in it for the politics,” he added. “I’m not in it for the ego. I’m not in it for the personality. I simply want to solve problems that (prevent Manteca) from being more than just OK.”
To get Manteca back on track Cantu said it takes educating residents.
“The city is not a business,” he said. “We do not manufacture things or sell things. We provide services . . . You can’t buy things or do things without money.”
That is where his push for storefront marijuana comes into play as well as initiatives he intends to pursue in the coming months to generate more funds for the city.
“Manteca is slowly deteriorating (in terms of service levels and amenities),” Cantu said. “If we don’t so something soon it is going to be too late.”
To contact Dennis Wyatt, email email@example.com