This is a tale of two taxes and one city — Manteca.
Or more precisely why did Measure A — a $260 million bond for Manteca Unified schools pass and not the one cent sales tax increase for the City of Manteca known as Measure Z?
Given the fact the key to passage of the school bond were voters within the city limits of Manteca who rejected the same bond proposal in March when it was Measure R should give you an inkling of what went right and what went wrong.
You cannot simply dismiss the sales tax in Manteca failing due to voter concern about their jobs and businesses amid the COVID-19 pandemic. There were 68 cities and counties with general sales tax increase measures on the Nov. 3 ballot that required simple majorities. All but 12 passed. Those that passed included 37 cities where the “yes” vote was between 60.1 percent and 78.9 percent.
Another eight measures that were restricted to specific spending required two thirds to pass. Four such measures passed that restricted the new sales tax to streets in Nevada City, transportation in Sonoma County, rail in San Francisco/San Mateo counties, and affordable housing/homeless in Sonoma .
While there are those in city leadership positions that might credit, or from their perspective blame, Manteca Trailer & RV owner Dave Tenney for Measure Z’s failure they need to guess again.
Compared to the city’s education campaign, Tenney’s efforts were practically non-existent although they did have a much higher profile than the Yes on Z folks.
That is not to say Tenney’s efforts did not have an impact as it did. But at the end of the day all Tenney did was pick up on what he was hearing in the community — the same questions he had about the entire tax measure.
Unlike Manteca Unified that made it clear what the problem was and what the $260 million would go toward, the City was about as vague as you could get. Using a Tenney analogy, Manteca Unified was the teen son who gave his parents a clear and well-thought out plan as why they should invest in his future and how they can expect their money to be spent. The city, on the other hand, was the teen son who simply said, “hey pops, I need $12 million to cover my expenses and to do more things.”
It also did not help that the five elected council members that put the tax measure on the ballot — with the exception of Mayor Ben Cantu — distanced themselves as far as they could from promoting a “yes” vote.
That only compounded the problem the city created by themselves by listening to consultants, phone surveys, and focus groups. Measure Z started as a possible way to fund $80 million recreation amenities over two years ago. Then when more consultants and surveys were done it was turned into a general sales tax to expand expenditures on streets, public safety, and such. And finally as Election Day neared it became a way to pay for COVID-19 related expenses and ultimately as a way to make up for loss of city revenue that the pandemic shutdowns of businesses created.
Anyone who has been around the block a few times will tell you there are people who you will never convince to vote for a tax measure regardless of the argument just as there are those who rubber stamp tax hikes.
The key are the people who are willing to listen and give a tax proposal some thought. This includes more than a few people who at first glance have a tendency to believe they will not support a tax measure but can be convinced to do so if the case is made in fairly specific terms instead of just general promises which is the route the city took.
Manteca Unified when they decided to re-try the bond measure that failed in March didn’t go running back to the consultants. Instead they asked people for input not by slick surveys or phone calls. They talked to them.
What they found out was that people, for the most part, were convinced of the need. They also explored a critical component involving the realistic actual cost to people that would be footing the bill.
The fact the district had strong bond ratings thanks to their fiscal management, the bond market was extreme key favorable as were construction costs, and the investment in existing facilities aimed at adding of up to another 50 plus years of useable life is what caught the attention of those without a foot firmly planted in the “yes” or “no” side.
It also helped Manteca Unified went out of the way to demonstrate the need. It was not an easy thing to do as the real need were issues most people couldn’t see — aging infrastructure, problems behind walls, grading issues, inadequate wiring that was also old for modern classrooms and a whole laundry list of pressing needs that were far from glamourous.
The city’s education effort was we need money to do things. Yes, they said it would go for public safety, streets, and parks and such but that’s what money the city collects already goes for.
The city protested an awful lot that they couldn’t come up with a specific spending plan as that would require a two thirds approval of any new tax. There is a huge difference between a restrictive tax and a spending plan.
Yes, a spending plan can be altered but it is at the risk of elected officials who will pay the price for misleading the public.
If the City of Lathrop could put together a list of specific needs — including helping staff Lathrop Manteca Fire stations within their city limits — that the tax generated would go toward whittling down, the City of Manteca almost four times its size could have down a similar exercise. They chose not to.
This was pointed out by Tenney very effectively in his web-based ads. But if anyone had bothered to engage people beyond social media in give-and-take one-on-one conversations or even in small groups, they would have found Tenney didn’t start the fire, so to speak. He was simply saying what other people were already saying.
Measure Z crashed because there was no one at the steering wheel. That said the fact it garnered 47.45 percent of the vote tells you something.
People understand their teen son could use some money to make a better future for himself but they would like some reassurances exactly how their money will be spent. The real test going forward is not just retaining those voters who supported it this time but making the case for 827 people to flip their vote.
Normally that would sound like a narrow assessment of what’s ahead but with nearly a 79 percent voter turnout countywide, it is highly doubtful the city is going to convince very many people who are eligible to vote but didn’t do so this time to vote the next time on a tax measure is on the ballot and to cast an affirmative vote.
And don’t assume that if Manteca adds 1,800 more households that these people are going to be automatic “yes” votes for a tax increase. If they are buying a $500,000 home, between property taxes, bonds, community facilities fees, and Mello-Roos taxes they are going to be acutely aware they are forking out annually close to $7,000 just in property taxes.
The city needs to make its case by adopting a specific spending plan that they can be held accountable every two years when voters elect people to represent them at the city level.
Of course, it would be a lot easier to blame Measure Z failing on the efforts basically of one man as that means elected city leaders can avoid doing the grunt work needed to convince people a tax increase is in their best interest.
These are the opinions of the editor and not necessarily the Bulletin of 209 Multimedia.