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Ben Cantu & Mantecas three-peat
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Manteca — that once billed itself as “The Crossroads of California” in the 1980s before adopting the moniker “The Family City” — is at a crossroads.

During the next 10 years Manteca is going to gain ground on Tracy and give the city of 86,000 a run for its money and possibly knock it out as the No. 2 largest city in San Joaquin County.

Manteca is now at 75,000 residents or 9,000 people behind Tracy.

Back in 2010 the gap was larger. Tracy had 82,922 residents and Manteca 67,096 residents. That reflects a difference of just over 15,000 people.

This is not about civic pride of how the county’s third largest city is on track to knock the No. 2 city of its pedestal.

Instead this is to alert you to the stark reality. Something real big is about to happen to Manteca and you may not like it.

The bureaucratic number crunchers that make population growth projections have missed the trend. And it is a trend. A big trend. Manteca is adding more housing units numerically on an annual basis than any other city in the county. And it has more approved developments with the wastewater and water systems to support it than anyplace else except perhaps the 11,000-home planned community of River Islands at Lathrop.

Manteca for four consecutive years through the depths of the housing crisis built an average of 300 new homes a year. That was more than the combined annual total in all of San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and Merced counties. It is also got more active housing projects moving forward than any other jurisdiction in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

Manteca has added 7,000 plus residents in the last six years compared to 3,000 for Tracy. If the trend continues by 2032 Manteca will have 89,000 residents and Tracy 92,000. But here’s the thing that blows that projection apart. There are by far more subdivisions breaking ground and going to final approval in Manteca. It means Manteca could easily break the 100,000 mark before Tracy.

The problem is these numbers represent more than people. They reflect increased demand on services, more traffic, pressure on the schools, and more homes being built without adequate fees in place.

Borrowing a line from perennial council candidate Ben Cantu, Manteca has been here before — twice. The first time growth ate away at Manteca’s ability to serve it was back in the early 1980s when 1,400 homes were built in a single year. The general fund reserve was down to $1,000. Manteca had a new fire station on Louise Avenue but couldn’t afford to staff it. A number of schools were on year round schedules. Used CHP patrol cars with 92,000 miles on them were “new” patrol units for Manteca Police.

Then in the 1990s as growth picked up, it was clear growth fees were woefully inadequate

The fire facilities fee, as an example, went unchanged for 15 years. As a result when more than enough homes were built to justify building a new fire station, the city had collected only a third of the money needed to build it. What saved Manteca were bonus bucks — a solution championed by the local development community to avoid builders from suing each other over rare sewer allocations. Developers entered into agreements with the city to provide bonus bucks for each house for the city to use as it saw fit in exchange for sewer allocation certainty over multiple years. Bonus bucks is what paid for two thirds of the cost of the Union Road fire station. The bonus bucks to the tune of $11 million plugged holes in the general fund budget through the last decade to avoid a repeat of the 1980s

In many ways this is not a repeat of the 1980s. The city has a 25 percent general fund reserve. There are ample reserves for other funds. Water and sewer systems have been managed effectively to avoid anticipated rate increases for six years and counting. It’s been more than a dozen years since the last garbage rate.

This time around the problem is how Manteca has inadequately charged growth for its share of impacts.

Some of Cantu’s points about whether municipal finances are questionable and highly debatable. What isn’t is his assertion Manteca continues to systematically undercharge housing growth to cover its legal share of impacts it creates 

Over five years ago, as an example, the city identified the need for $180 million in major road projects and interchange work. Council directed staff to propose an update of fees to reflect those needs including the embattled Raymus Expressway. In the past eight years 2,852 additional homes have been built yet fees haven’t been increased. The low-ball option advanced at the time added $2,200 to the cost of building a new home. That is almost $6.3 million lost and gone forever that legally can’t be passed on to future growth. Major roads are just the tip of the iceberg. There is no fee in place for a library or growth’s share of a new civic center, police headquarters, or other amenities would expect a community of 100,000 to have. There is also inadequate school construction financing in place.

Growth is inevitable. Growth also can uplift a community. Done wrong, it can deteriorate the quality of life and make growth as necessary to a municipal budget’s operation as meth is to a junkie.

The Nov. 8 election comes at what might be Manteca’s last opportunity to assure that Manteca at 100,000 will be a vibrant community and not a remake of eastern Modesto sprawl.