Manteca, for whatever reason, has gone 11 years without raising sewer and water rates.
And to compound the problem the city spent money on needed projects to keep toilets flushing and water flowing that were factored into the last rate hike a previous council adopted in 2008 and then suspended less than two years later.
That has created a $20.9 million tab that has to be paid to cover loans for money already spent.
The blame game makes no sense and neither does denying the basic problem.
The hole was being dug long before the current “senior” council member Gary Singh was first elected 4 years and 3 months ago.
Yet Singh — along with Mayor Ben Cantu plus Council members Jose Nuño and Dave Breitenbucher elected two years and three months ago and Charlie Halford elected just last November — now own the problem.
It is indisputable that labor and material costs have gone up since 2010. Construction projects that account for the bulk of the $20.9 million deficit the sewer and water accounts are expected to rack up by June 30, have soared even higher.
The city was able to keep the two city divisions going by borrowing money from other funds. There is a legitimate question as to whether all of the inter-fund loans were approved by councils. Major projects such as the fire station opened last year at Woodward Avenue and Atherton Drive had inter-fund loans approved at the council level.
Somewhere along the line a lot more money had to be borrowed to keep things going such as the $20 million the water and sewer accounts owe the street fund.
If such loans were buried in annual budgets somehow the current or previous councils were never made aware of them at a public meeting.
As for whom in city management failed the public the likely candidates who would have been in a position to allow such a hole to be created, have long since retired or were shown the door.
One thing is clear: For years there have been arguments that all departments from the city manager’s office to the finance department to police have been understaffed.
Overworked staff or undermanned departments are not an excuse. But somewhere along the line people with a lot more experience than the current city management team is credited for having — or lacking depending upon your political camp — failed to protect the city.
There will be those who will blame everything on the council of the last two years. Not only is that absurd and disingenuous, but from a political perspective it makes no sense.
Why would you allow staff to unearth a ticking time bomb to blow up in your face?
So where is the council headed in terms of addressing the problem?
It is a given there will be rate increases for sewer and water as well as solid waste. They will likely be significant given there is a $20.9 million hole and counting the city needs to climb out of when it comes to enterprise funds powered by ratepayer dollars.
Beyond that there is no rush to push to raise taxes except for the mayor.
Cantu believes the math is clear and that the general fund based on all the things people keep hammering city leaders that they want is severely underfunded.
Singh’s approach is more reflective and appears to be where the council majority is headed which is a different path than chosen by Cantu. In the end, however, both approaches could very well end up at — or near — the same destination.
Conceding rate increases are inevitable is clear from the basic numbers that have been put on the table.
But Singh is far from being convinced Manteca needs to strike up the band and starting playing the tune that taxes need to be raised.
That’s because before any move on taxes is made he wants to see Manteca go through a full fiscal year operating on a budget built on real numbers instead of a house of cards.
Such a move would also allow the city to get a better handle on pandemic related economic losses as well as likely get a clear inking of the impact of Great Wolf room tax revenues. Of course, that would require Great Wolf to be able to open its doors.
A wait and see approach also presents a significant opportunity for an election to be conducted that may actually force candidates to make it clear which way they want Manteca to go — status quo service levels and amenities or a notch or two above.
The reason such an election could happen is simple. By waiting until a full fiscal year with the right financial numbers as the budget foundation is completed, that gives the city only one chance to ask for a tax of some type in 2022 when the first week of November rolls around. The June 2022 primary would fall almost 24 days before the end of the fiscal year. The next windows is the March 2004 primary.
That means whoever is running for mayor and the seat currently held by Nuño will have to do so with a tax measure of some sort on the same ballot.
Whatever the city’s financial situation is on June 30, 2022 will dictate if there is a serious need for a tax hike and the amount.
There is a chance the city by then could have stabilized the general fund and have stopped drawing down on a shrinking reserve. That would require the lockdown revenue drive not only stopping but rebounding and then some.
If no manpower needed to deliver city services is cut through attrition or layoffs, the council might not ask for a tax increase. Or they may want to ask for a tax increase with a clear plan on how increased revenue would be spent to improve city services.
If the city is still tanking, a tax measure would be a given. How big it would need to be would be driven by a desire to restore the status quo or to do that and go beyond.
It would be pretty hard for anyone running not to take a position in a tax measure on the same ballot. If they are for it, they would need to vigorously make the case. And if they are against it, the electorate would be within its right to push hard on candidates to explain how they are going to keep service levels from decreasing or help them increase.
Regardless of what happens, Singh wants any tax measure that could end up being advanced to be tied to a spending plan like the Lathrop City Council did.
He believes voters need to know what the money will be spent for instead of taking the Measure Z approach which was simply a “trust us” given how incredibly broad and vague the proponents of the tax were.
But as Singh points out, it is a little too early to make a call one way or another in whether they should even be a tax proposal.
Now that elected leaders know there has been a shell game in play years before they were sworn into office they need to spend some time thoroughly examining all aspects of how many is being spent.
That includes deciding what is important in a ranked order and stick with it instead of taking a kid-in-the-candy-store approach to municipal spending which is why there have been dozens of unfunded projects promised over the years that are piling up simply due to lack of funding.
This column is the opinion of editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Bulletin or 209 Multimedia. He can be reached at email@example.com