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The $2M question: Will the City Council leave Mantecans holding the COVID relief fund bag?
PERSPECTIVE
taxes

Call it a preemptive strike.

Someone needs to remind the folks at city hall exactly why the federal government is shoveling nearly $14 million in COVID-19 relief funds Manteca’s way.

And just to be clear, this is not a column comparing senior management of being the equivalent of the wolves guarding the proverbial hen house.

It’s just the past and recent history gives Manteca taxpayers and ratepayers a reason not to place blind faith in the folks running the show at 1001 West Center Street.

The COVID-19 relief money’s original intent was to keep local government whole in dealing with costs incurred fighting the pandemic and weathering government imposed lockdowns that disrupted the economy and the flow of sales and hotel room taxes, among other revenue, to city coffers.

The city earlier last year internally started drafting a list of what that COVID money should or could be spent on.

And while some rank and file city employees have an inkling of what is on the list, the 88,000 or so people that count the most — the residents of Manteca — don’t.

They won’t know until senior management advances a proposal for the City Council to ponder. By then the cast has been pretty much set.

And while this is not an assumption staff is overlooking some key costs — based on the lack of institutional knowledge, the infamous department head purge, the $68 million accounting snafu involving public funds, musical chairs, the desire for some on municipal staff to come up with a source for yet another downtown study to the tune of $800,000, and assorted elected officials’ wish lists — the average taxpayer and ratepayer could be left holding the bag.

We already know — assuming the final figures are indeed final — the general fund took a $4 million hit during the pandemic.

This is a revenue shortfall the city covered by dipping into general fund reserves.

There is every reasonable expectation this City Council will backfill the general fund reserve with $4 million from the COVID-19 relief funds.

Then there is overtime costs tied to the pandemic, $5,000 bonus for workers for staying on the job during the pandemic, the $400 reward city staff got for getting free COVID shots, and the bonus personal time off the city is giving certain employees that faithfully reported to work during the pandemic.

Unlike other council items that have a fiscal impact attached to them, such spending on employees related to the pandemic hasn’t had such info noted. The council agenda reports for years the reason being it wasn’t impacting the general fund per se.

The public hasn’t been made privy to such information —although hopefully the council has. We can only assume the reason non general-fund expenditures are treated differently when it comes to upfront seamless transparency it’s because such gifts of state or federal money may be perceived somehow as “funny money.” The bottom line is it is still tax dollars.

And, sorry, robust transparency is simply not saying any member of the public can ask for a snapshot of a particular journal entry in the general ledger.

It is clear the general ledger isn’t something that has always been treated as a revered accounting document at city hall. The fiscal impact should be listed on a public document attached to council agendas with all expenditures the council approves including raises, bonuses, street repairs, and six-figure payouts to convince fired department heads not to sue the city. And that goes for everything regarding the source of the money whether it is the general fund, enterprise funds, or special/restricted funds.

Taking a ballpark semi-educated guess based on the number of city employees, median daily pay and such the pandemic related city personnel costs are likely to run somewhere around $3 million. If the number is whacked, perhaps someone at city hall can enlighten the people of Manteca what that running total is at the next council meeting of the running total to date.

And while they’re at it, they might provide a clue as to what they are going to do about the $4 million in uncollected debt Councilman Charlie Halford back in October prompted staff to make public in response to an inquiry.

Why this matters is the level of uncollected debt for sewer, water and garbage service when into deep space orbit during the pandemic when the council made a decision to suspend cutoffs for nonpayment.

Roughly $2 million of that debt is tied to municipal utilities. Granted some of that may have predated the start of the pandemic in March 2020 when the finance department leadership as well as top city management was non-existent, clueless, channeling the Three Stooges or a combination thereof.

Regardless the city in 2015 — the last year bad utility debt was brought before the council as a separate agenda| item in what could be called the true spirit of transparency — Manteca wrote off $146,743 in uncollected water, garbage, and sewer bills.

It is a long way from writing off $146,743 in bad debt for one year to $2 million in uncollected utility bills.

There is also a question of the other “miscellaneous” uncollected debt that Halford was told was not related to municipal utilities. Back in 2015 those write-offs were less than the utility losses. In October we were told it was hovering at around $2 million.

Clearly a large chunk of that uncollectible bad debt is pandemic related.

That debt should be covered by the COVID-19 relief funds.

It matters because of rate studies underway that will likely result in substantial increases in water and sewer rates. New rates for ratepayers should not cover COVID related debt especially given a clear council directive for dealing with the pandemic swelled the annual losses significantly.

The COVID funds could easily be justified to cover such write-offs and could go as high as $2 million or more.

Without looking at a wish list the city could easily come up with close to $10 million in expenses or losses they incurred during the pandemic to cover using the federal COVID-19 relief funds.

That would leave $4 million or less of money to be spent on other things.

Someone at city hall might contend this is a column sounding an unnecessary fire alarm if they already are planning on COVID relief funds to cover bad debt from utility counts due to the pandemic.

But given the track record of late, only a fool would assume the city is covering all its bases.

 

 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 dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com