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Cunha on Measure Z: City Council shouldn’t ask voters to write them blank check for new taxes

Fred Cunha is not what you’d call a fan of new taxes.

The 60-year-old with expertise in delivering projects on time and in a cost effective manner during his career with IBM believes government should first prioritize needs, look for inefficiencies, explore various options for delivering goods and services instead of doing business as usual, and examine various funding options. Then, if the money isn’t there and the need is real, and there is no other way to secure necessary funding you then make a case for new taxes.

And what perplexes Cunha who is running for election to the Manteca City Council on Nov. 3. Manteca’s elected leaders didn’t make much of a case when they placed the one cent sales tax increase on the upcoming ballot.

There was no list of what exactly the money would be used for, a relatively detailed spending plan, or a public explanation of why the sales tax increase was the only viable option.

Given how the Measure Z sales tax measure ended up on the ballot he is right to question why the council didn’t specifically say what they would do with the money instead of simply throwing up their hands and saying “let the voters decide.” History is certainly on Cunha’s side.

Manteca voters were asked in 2004 to approve a one cent sales tax. The council back then was trying to figure a way to raise more funds to hire additional police and firefighters. A general sales tax with no restrictions on how the funds raised would be spent was seen as the way to go as it only needed a simple majority to pass. A sales tax measure that was restricted in how it was spent requires a two thirds majority.

Voters in 2004 made it clear what they thought about writing the City of Manteca a blank check. Almost 82 percent of the voters rejected the tax measure.

Two years later the council went back to the voters with Measure M. This time there was language in the ballot measure that spelled out specifically what it could be used for in terms of frontline fire and police staffing. It also made it clear Measure M could not supplant the percentage of the general fund revenue that was going to public safety that dams to 62.9 percent in 2006.

The voters liked the idea of knowing where their money was going to go if they agreed to raise taxes. And they liked what the council said they would spend the money on. Measure M passed with a 70 percent approval just as the country was entering a recession.

Fourteen years later the money is being spent as promised thanks to legal restrictions built into the ballot language that the voters approved. And when the city attempted to renege on a promise to use the money to fund school resource officers for East Union, Sierra, and Manteca high schools the language voters approved stopped that from happening.

Measure K is another prime example of what can happen with elected leaders make their case when asking voters to approve taxes.

The half cent county-wide sales tax approved in 1990 was restricted to transportation that included new road projects, local streets maintenance, passenger rail service, buses, as well as pedestrian and bicycle projects.

The voters were presented with a detailed list of projects that would be tackled.

The tax allowed the Altamont Corridor Service to start, got the 120 Bypass widened to four lanes years ahead of schedule, added two lanes ahead of schedule on Interstate 205, got Highway 99 widened to six lanes from Ripon to the Crosstown Freeway in Stockton, an helped put in place a wide variety of projects. Those in Manteca included developing the Tidewater Bikeway, building the transit station, and supplementing annual road repair spending in excess of $900,000 to name a few endeavors.

The Measure K approval had a 20-year sunset clause.

In 2006, voters were presented another detailed ballot measure to extend Measure K for 30 years. It received 70 percent voter approval.

It passed by a slightly higher margin in Manteca where voters approved the half cent Measure M public safety tax on the same ballot.

When the current council placed Measure A on the Nov. 3. ballot as a general one cent sales tax increase, staff was caught off guard regarding the Measure M restriction that requires 62.9 percent of all new general fund revenue to go to public safety.

However, knowing 62.9 percent of the new money will go to public safety is far from a spending plan. Measure M was specific in what the sales tax generated from its passage could be spent on when it comes to public safety.

Should the one cent sales tax hike generate $12 million, on an annual basis $7,545,000 would go to public safety and $4,952,000 for who knows what.

Measure M barred money generated from the half cent sales tax being spent on public safety administration. It was basically restricted to putting police officers on the streets and firefighters on engines.

From Cunha’s perspective voters should be told how the money they are being asked to agree to let the city take from them will be spent.

How hard would it have been for the city to go through the exercise of coming up with a spending plan for “x” amount of police officers and “x” amount of firefighters and then include ballot language that would legally require them to follow through if voters approved Measure Z?

As for the annual $4,952,000 the remaining 37.1 percent of the sales tax is projected to generate it wouldn’t be difficult to come up with a program to legally tie that money up as well.

Take one of Cunha’s big issues — the deplorable shape of streets especially major corridors.

The city could easily have followed the lead of the San Joaquin Council of Governments and developed a spending program to go with the ballot measure. Cunha believes bringing the Airport Way corridor from its washboard condition into a smooth roadway that can handle high volumes of traffic as well as widening the overpass at the 120 Bypass should be the top priority. Even with a cost saving diverging diamond interchange project such as is being built at Union Road could make such an endeavor cost in excess of $40 million.

Keeping in mind if the city has money it can use it to leverage part of the cost from state and even federal sources.

Given Airport Way is just a sliver of the need, even if the current and future councils wanted to use more than $4.7 million from Measure A if it passes for roads they can’t due to the Measure M public safety tax restriction on general fund spending.

The council could have avoided that if Measure A had language that superseded Measure M. But it doesn’t.

That brings us back to the expertise that Cunha says he can bring to the table.

As an IBM project manager for much of his work career, Cunha was responsible for developing the most efficient cost plan to deliver a project along with specific details, as well as devising doable and acceptable timelines.

That meant analyzing the identified need, determine what funding sources are available, and leaving no rock unturned in examining pitfalls and restrictions

Forgetting to factor in the Measure M restrictions is a pretty big failure.

That aside, Cunha never dared to tell his bosses simply that if they authorized spending $12 million a year on a project that is all they needed to know.

Big Blue may not have gone bankrupt if they followed the City of Manteca’s Measure A sales tax strategy. However, they certainly would not be able to deliver quality and effective products to customers at an affordable price or in a timely manner if they never bothered to develop a plan and instead are keeping their fingers crossed $12 million more a year will drop into their collective lap.

Having no game plan to hold the city accountable and not making a specific case why more taxes may be needed while asking for a blank check is not the way Cunha believes the way the City of Manteca should be run.