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Five months that will shape Manteca for years to come
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“The first five minutes are critical for what happens in the next five hours in a fire. (It is the same principle as) the next five months and how they impact the next five years.” – Franco Torrice, Manteca firefighter

It is an analogy that is right on target. The moves that Manteca makes in terms of budget cuts in the next five months will indeed dictate the next five years in terms of the level of municipal services and the quality of life the community enjoys.

The reason is simple. Barring any more raids by the State of California beyond the $1.2 million in property tax they’re “borrowing” from Manteca to try and bridge the current $27 billion deficit in Sacramento, the odds are things will hit bottom in the coming months.

That bottom includes the reassessment of residential property taxes downward in Manteca plus the flat lining of sales tax. The drop in assessed value will happen and it looks that even with the closure of Sexton Chevrolet the worst may be over in terms of retail spending retreats.

The $11.3 million deficit for the coming fiscal year has been whittled down to about $2 million before the state raid of the $1.2 million is added to the deficit.

Given the cutbacks in place already it is going to be extremely painful to come up with the additional $3 million.

There is some good news, though, if you want to call it that. The projected deficit climbs to $14 million in 2010-12, then $15 million to $16 million in 2011-12 and then $16 million to $17 million in 2012-13. Those figures assume the $9 million plus in budget cutbacks and new revenues don’t continue. In other words, the increase projected out is primarily in pay increases that have been negotiated as well as employee costs such as benefits. Those would simply have to be held in abeyance to whack off a large chunk of the future deficits.

That underscores Torrice’s point. The next $2 million to $3 million in cutbacks is something that we’re going to have to live with for a long time.

Now comes the $3 million question:  What – or more precisely – who does the City Council cut?

There is naturally a lot of angst out there. It’s not among city employees either. The people that really count – Manteca’s residents – have the biggest stake at the table and the most to lose. That isn’t downplaying the devastation of a municipal worker losing their job or having their income whacked back severely.

It seems the general consensus is the pain should be distributed throughout the city workforce and departments and not just focused on one place.

Agreed. A key point, though, should be where does that “pain start?” Does it retreat back to the original starting budget before cuts were made if it is a percentage across the board or does it start now that some cuts have been put in place?

It’s not academic question. All departments have taken heavy hits, some a lot heavier than others.

Public safety should, however, be paramount with the caveat it isn’t wise to completely cripple the city.

Can we afford to get by with less patrol officers on the street? Can we afford to get by with less firefighters per engine? From here on out, the debate on what to cut next must be framed in cold reality.

That is why the first people who need a crack at determining what needs to be cut next should be the rank-and-file workers. If they can find ways through salary concessions, changing work schedules, and such they need to be given an opportunity to do so now since the final cuts in all likelihood need to be made in August or September to keep the city from following Sacramento into a sea of red.

In a way, it is an exercise in futility as the only way to cut further is in reducing staff.

It behooves the City Council to give various employee groups – especially given the dedication and commitment virtually every municipal employee has to Manteca – a chance to suggest further ways to streamline the operations in their respective departments.

It is more than just a gesture. They could indeed come up with savings that could save more money and still be able to keep going forward. That money they save will translate into workers’ jobs saved as well as assures that cuts will indeed impact service levels as little as possible.

Whatever savings the work groups come up with that can be implemented should go toward that department’s share of whatever “equal distribution” of the pain the city comes up with.

It accomplishes several things. First, it makes employee groups acutely aware of what little there is to cut as nothing they can come up with will collectively reach the $3 million level unless it includes eliminating a lot of bodies.

Second, it is yet another way to assure the public everything is being done to find every last possible ounce of fat that can be scraped away before the inevitable cuts are made into muscle.

And – perhaps most important of all – when the verdict day arrives and the numbers are solid enough to proceed with a new budget, Manteca’s leaders will be in a position to know whatever unpopular course of action they take – and it will be unpopular no matter what – they can do it with the confidence that no stone was left unturned.