n. 1. Work that is worthless or pointless but gives the appearance of having value. 2. The $2.3 million federally funded American Recovery and Reinvestment Act landscaping project along the 120 Bypass and Highway 99 corridors through Manteca
If you are surprised about the State of California tossing away a minimum of $2 billion in the past few months in fraudulent claims for add on relief funds and regular jobless benefits from the Employment Development Department, don’t be.
The skill sets bureaucrats in Sacramento and Washington have developed to pull off such incompetency have been honed over the years.
Sending 100 claims to the same address and mailing out relief checks to people using the names and Social Security numbers of famous people like U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein is child’s play.
For government to commit fraud worthy of the Guinness Book of World Records, it needs a convincing cover worthy of Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the 1973 classic “The Sting” that has so much finesse that you, as a taxpayer, can’t tell you’ve even been ripped off.
You don’t have to go far to see fraud perpetrated on the taxpayers so smoothly that many would refer to it with the somewhat kinder word of “boondoggle” that gives the impression the waste of money is simply the result of protégés of the Three Stooges running the government.
All you have to see is the massive woodlands at the heart of the 120 Bypass and Highway 99 interchange and the mature landscaping lining both freeways through Manteca.
No, I am not on drugs but the people who made possible what was dubbed at the time as a “model template project” for Caltrans to rethink landscaping freeways and interchanges in California might have been. To be clear, it wasn’t Caltrans saying that. It was federal and state politicians eagerly shoveling out $831 billion of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that was crafted by the Obama Administration and passed by the 111th Congress.
Now about those stunning woodlands . . .
County bureaucrats got wind of money being allocated to highway projects.
Now simpletons that taxpayers are, most folks thought this money was to build or repair highways. Silly taxpayers.
What happened instead, Congress and the Obama Administration unwittingly trusted the bureaucracy in place to do the right thing. And they did. But doing the right thing in the world ruled by bureaucratic edicts is following the rules and regulations they had in place and codified with the implicit knowledge and approval of previous administrations and congressional sessions.
No one at the top gave much thought to the details, which is par for the course.
The biggest string attached to the money when it was authorized was that it had to go to shovel ready projects to help put people back to work that were being hammered by the Great Recession triggered by the liar loan crisis.
The federal agency distributing the stimulus funds for highways had to follow statutes in place that required 2 percent of all federal transportation funds for highways and freeways to go toward beautification efforts.
Manteca made an inquiry as they were trying to find a way to cover the $50,000 tab needed to landscape and install irrigation systems at the recently completed Yosemite Avenue and Highway 99 interchange.
San Joaquin Council of Governments checked into it and discovered there was a ton of money going unclaimed from California’s allotment for highway beautification projects.
The Manteca project was shovel ready. But given there was more money and no applications at the time for it, a plan was devised to fast-track a design for landscaping the 120 Bypass and Highway 99 corridors through Manteca that people had been complaining about for years because it did not look like a Bay Area freeway.
It’s obvious why it doesn’t given significant differences in climate in the Northern San Joaquin Valley as opposed to the Bay Area. But that didn’t faze a consortium of state and county bureaucrats on a mission.
The plans were stunning. Overall there would be 7,100 trees planted — half the number of the trees on private and public land in Manteca in 2009. There would also be 3,900 shrubs planted, 280,000 square feet of mulch spread, and 500,000 square feet of hydro seed for grass. That was in addition to vines that would be planted to ultimately cover every inch of sound walls to protect them from graffiti.
The piece de resistance was the 120 Bypass/Highway 99 interchange. When it reached maturity, the world was promised stunning woodlands.
It was a major departure for Caltrans when it came to landscaping along state freeways.
The planting scheme called for taller trees in the back with heights scaling downward towards the roadway. The evergreen trees picked for the back were similar to the ones you’d find along Center Street along Morezone Field.
Others in the mixture included several varieties of oak trees, western red buds, Chinese Pistache, and several others. The fall colors would rival those found in Yosemite Valley in late November.
Planners were detailed enough to include chicken wire beneath the tree plantings to prevent the project turning into a massive buffet for gophers.
Then Councilman Steve DeBrum was more than skeptical given it called only for the contractor to water the plantings periodically for three years using water tankers before all of it, except the Yosemite Avenue/Highway 120 interchange, would become the responsibility of Caltrans which was underfunded and understaffed. The exception of the one interchange was on the backs of Manteca taxpayers.
DeBrum doubted most of the plantings would survive the severe valley heat with minimal or no watering after three years.
Manteca became the lead agency on the project even though none of the right-of-way or ownership of the landscaping was the city’s and not a penny in city money would be spent. The only obligation the city had was to maintain the landscaping at the Yosemite and Highway 99 interchange.
Fast forward to 2015. Then councilman Richard Silverman who was not on the council when the city went after the $2.3 million in stimulus funds, voted reluctantly to accept the project as complete after the three-year maintenance period ended. The reason was simple. If the City didn’t accept the project as complete they’d have to fork over $50,000 to the federal government to reimburse them for the landscaping cost at the Yosemite and Highway 99 interchange.
“I think it looks horrible,” Silverman said at the time in what might be the biggest understatement he’s ever uttered.
The project that supported three dozen jobs for a fairly short period of time plus made a few commercial nurseries happy, started in the first year of the drought with the last watering taking place as the Sierra had the worst year on record for lack of snowfall. Sacramento that year demanded cities up and down the states to cut back on landscape irrigation to conserve water.
Today good luck counting a hundred trees and shrubs — the ones that nature put in place don’t count — let alone 7,100.
The trees that survived have turned into popular spots for the homeless to erect encampments. As for rampant grass or most of the sound walls covered with ivy, it is just dirt, weeds and graffiti.
What you see in the 120 Bypass right-of-way from just west of Airport Way to Highway 99 and then along 99 from just south of Lathrop Road to Austin Road is the type of landscaping you can buy if Uncle Sam spends $2.3 million of your tax dollars.
Keep in mind this project was conceived just a decade ago and completed in 2015 as defined by three years of watering after planting was finished.
Now are you surprised that people were able to use murderer Scott Peterson’s name and Social Security number and those of numerous other state inmates to loot the $110 billion in unemployment combined with relief funds that California doled out?
This column is the opinion of editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Bulletin or 209 Multimedia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org