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Homeless proposal: Is it pouring more taxes into the ultimate money pit called Qualex?
young homeless

Manteca Councilman Dave Breitenbucher is not, in Mayor Ben Cantu’s words, “willing to cut bait and run when it gets hard.”

Cantu zapped Breitenbucher with that observation when the councilman was bringing up some serious points regarding the potential Mega Money Pit elected officials appear hell-bent on buying.

The Mega Money Pit is the Qualex building that elected leaders in this city have already poured $5 million into it to buy and then started the first steps toward converting it into a police station before walking away and losing everything to the state six years later. On a 4-1 vote with Breitenbucher saying “no” both times the council has twice made it clear they intend to purchase the building again and fix it up as a homeless resource center/drop-in shelter.

Unlike most other major capital projects the city has undertaken with taxpayers’ money they have no idea of what this will cost. Based on the last market appraisal it will cost $1.5 million to buy. The estimates to fix the roof and other basic “known” conditions that need repaired that have been talked about for the past year or so adds another $800,000 if not more. Any surprises aside, there are then the issues of what it will cost to make the 57,000-square-foot cube-type structure work for whatever homeless use the city finally settles on.

Contrary to what elected leaders try to sell it as, the city does not have a plan but they are working on it. They know what they want to do in a general sense. But last week they proved it is not much better than thin air when they wisely embraced a staff plan to come up with parameters on what the structure would be used for so at one point in the process they can issue requests for proposals for non-profits and for-profit agencies alike to run whatever facility they come up with.

This is clearly trying to slam a square peg into a round hole approach. They have not asked the experts —those that actually provide homeless services — what type of building they need. Yet they are buying a building without any inking of whether they are about to create even more financial pitfalls or even if it will work halfway decently.

And they are doing this as the acting director of the finance department put in place after Finance Director Jeri Tejeda hit the road in November is also exiting stage left. That means there is no chief bean counter making sure all money is spent according to state law who is overseeing tax dollars except for whoever is picked as the finance director du jour.

Yet the council is going full speed ahead on spending what could be $3 million plus to repurpose the Qualex building as a homeless resource center/drop-in homeless shelter with no verification from those they expect to run it that it will even work in that structure.

That means the city — excluding interest on RDA bonds — may end up pouring $8 million into the Mega Money Pit at 555 Industrial Park Drive. That’s $8 million of your money and my money that is taken from us in the form of taxes.

To the credit of senior management led by Acting City Manager Miranda Lutzow, they have made it clear to the council that sticking with the site could mean tearing everything down and starting from scratch whether it has to do with unforeseen environmental issues or if the rehab and remodeling is so cost prohibitive it makes sense for a radical makeover.

Putting the possibility of demolition on the table is staff’s nod to a hard cold fact that Councilman Jose Nuño so astutely and honestly pointed out at least week’s meeting. In a nutshell, Nuño notes the big attraction for the Qualex property is that it will create the least amount of community backlash as opposed to other sites the city examined.

Nuno’s honesty is what the community needs in order to swallow what is a bitter and expensive pill to take in order to step up treatment of the homeless malady that Manteca is facing.  And when all the dust clears, it may end up being the best reason to justify the Qualex site regardless of the cost since doing nothing guarantees homeless issues will get worse.

Breitenbucher is convinced a homeless shelter will only compound the problems and that the best answer is to pursue just the homeless resource center that needs significantly less space than what the Qualex site entails. The numbers from the warming center adds credence to Breitenbucher’s position. Of the 509 unduplicated individuals the warming center assisted through March 1 based on the last known address the homeless provided, there were 121 non-local homeless. That means there is a strong possibility when whatever the city opens on August of 2021 at 555 Industrial Park Drive will help boost Manteca’s homeless population by 24 percent.

This is why Breitenbucher is the one asking the hard questions and is not willing to take the easy way and drop the matter simply because he was on the losing end of a 4-1 vote.

It is also why Councilman Gary Singh’s suggestion he has made repeatedly should not be buried but moved to the forefront. It involves a regional approach that requires Manteca starting talks now and pushing for a consortium of sorts at the same time they are working on establishing a homeless shelter/navigation center. Singh has always said that Manteca developing a solution such as they are now doing independently of Tracy, Lathrop, Ripon, and even Stockton will end up doing exactly what the mayor contends will never happen — build it and the homeless will come.

What is driving the Qualex solution is not just a simple desire to help get the homeless off the streets and provide them with services. It is a sincere effort by elected officials to address a growing community demand that something be done about homeless related problems.

In the words of Mayor Cantu, “(We need to be able to) enforce the law so (the homeless) are not sitting in front of the library or sleeping in front of stores or, I hate to say it, doing their thing in somebody’s bushes.”

That is a nod to the new reality created by the 9th District Court of Appeals with silent approval by the U.S. Supreme Court when they declined to review the case regarding cities and being able to enforce basic quality of life laws against the homeless such as essentially camping where they wish on public property with a few carved out exceptions. It means a city can’t enforce such laws unless there are available shelter beds for the homeless.

The ruling takes away the “right” of the homeless not to follow the law if they opt to refuse to take an available bed and stay with their illegal encampment on the street.

Breitenbucher may not agree with that solution as one Manteca should pursue given you could open the shelter and homeless flocking from out of town could make it impossible ever to meet the 9th District standard to enforce laws. But he agrees even less with pursing a solution in the manner the city is taking as it might be more prudent and cost effective to start from scratch with a homeless navigation center perhaps with in-take beds and not a full-blown drop-in shelter at another location that is easier for law enforcement to secure and monitor.

But such a solution that could involve land where the city once was going to build the Manteca VFW Hall on the southwest corner of Moffat Boulevard and Spreckels Avenue kitty corner from the BMX track was never vetted by the city because the solution they were pursing from the start has always been a drop-in shelter with a minimum of 218 beds.