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Without key roles filled Manteca faces precarious times in 2017
Its been a month since City Manager Elena Reyes has been put on paid leave by the Manteca City Council. - photo by HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin

Manteca in 2017 could see the return of Caterpillars with a vengeance.

Not the ones that produce butterflies but the large earth movers that yield housing subdivisions.

There are 9,700 plus housing units in various stages of approval with a good chunk moving toward groundbreaking. 

Unless an economic earthquake of epic proportions hits, the growth surge expected to pick up steam in 2017 will dwarf those of the early 2000s, the late 1980s and the mid-1970s in terms of size and impact on Manteca.

While this may not surprise anyone paying attention, there is a cause for concern that didn’t exist during previous growth periods.

Manteca — for all practical purposes — is without a city manager.

City Manager Elena Reyes is on ice. She’s been on paid leave for a month now as legal experts hired by the City Council delve into personnel issues that swept across the Civic Center like a tornado in the weeks following her taking over in July for Karen McLaughlin.

Reyes’ limbo is made more precarious when you add the fact three of the five key positions to deal with growth immediately below the city manager either have a caretaker in place or have the key leader ready to depart.

The fire chief and community development director posts are occupied by interim personnel. Fire Chief Kirk Waters’ departure was planned well ahead of Reyes’ arrival.  Frederic Clark — who was continuing to run the community development department after officially retiring while the hunt was on for his replacement — abruptly left due to a sharp disagreement with the temperament at the Civic Center. His pointed summary of the storm clouds that were gathering over management of city government was outlined in his resignation letter.

Nick Obligacion, who has “officially” retired is onboard until March 31.  That leaves only the public works director and finance director with any long-term skin left in the game.

This comes at a time not just when growth is revving up but with three major issues on the tables that could easily take significant turns for the worse without key management at the helm that have a vision and the commitment in terms of years left to serve the city to help Manteca ride out the growth storm.

Contractually, if the council decide they want to part ways with Reyes they can’t do so for at least another month. That’s because language in her contract prevents her termination within 60 days either side of a council election. 

The decision the council will have to make eventually is fraught with major pitfalls regardless of which way they turn. The city may not be able to go back to how things were in November as doing so could trigger workforce issues or even an exodus of other key positions assuming why Reyes is on ice has to do with management style.

Deciding to replace the city manager brings another set of issues. It could take three months to conduct a search, another month or so to get a replacement in place, and then the search would start for the fire chief, police chief, and community development director. That means the team needed to guide Manteca through growth won’t be whole until late summer at the earliest.

And whether the job would be overwhelming for one person in the city administration office to get a handle on instead of having an assistant city manager on board as well is a serious question.

Karen McLaughlin was serving as assistant city manager when Steve Pinkerton left the city manager’s post to take a similar position in Davis. She stepped into the interim position and then was hired as the city manager. Due to the 20 percent cuts in compensation municipal employees were taking McLaughlin didn’t think it was right to fill the assistant city manager position.

Three years ago as things started to improve, the council started talking about budgeting to restore the position. McLaughlin, however, declined to do so even though there was growing concerns the workload was unmanageable and that there were big projects being slowed down for a city of 75,000 on target to hit 120,000 residents in 20 years.

When Reyes came on board in July, she told the council the workload was too much to manage. She borrowed staff from two other department further impacting departments that were already short-handed and struggling to keep up with day-to-day operations and tackle projects in the aftermath of the citywide municipal workforce being pared by roughly 20 percent during the Great Recession.

In August Reyes convinced the City Council to budget for the hiring of an assistant city manager and to bring on a consultant for $57,000 to brand the city and redo the city website that had earned kudos for staff from the council after it was revamped nine months earlier. The argument was that it would help with economic development.

In an interview in November, Reyes told the Bulletin she was preparing to tell the City Council that she would be directly taking over economic development given that was one of her strong points as she worked previously as the San Joaquin County director of economic development.

Right now the city has an acting city manager — Greg Showerman who was plucked from the public works department.

The three issues are already in precarious shape — growth fees, school funding to handle growth, and the family entertainment zone.


Growth fees

Mayor Steve DeBrum has been frustrated about staff’s snail pace progression toward updating growth fees to make sure new residents buying new homes are paying their fair share of essential service infrastructure such as fire and police stations. major road projects, parks, as well as other amenities that they will need and use.

DeBrum astutely notes Manteca “is leaving money in the table.”

When the city first recognized that growth pressures were growing in 2008, they ordered a quick review of the major road portion of the Public Facilities Improvement Plan (PFIP). They were told everything they wanted to do along the 120 Bypass, on Highway 99, and major roads south of the bypass could cost $200 million.

The figure stunned the council. The direction was to come back in six months with various models on how to possibly assess fees that growth could legally be charged whether it was slapped on growth citywide, growth south of the bypass, or specific areas in south Manteca.

But before anything could move forward, the bottom fell out of the economy.

The PFIP fee upgrade didn’t start getting serious attention again until two years ago. But again it was with key staffs that had been whittled back as the city grew due to the Great Recession.

During that time part of the cost of the “want list” went down as the Lathrop Road/Highway 99 interchange replacement was done on the state’s dime with some matching money from Measure K.

That was the good news. The bad news was from 2008 to 2016 Manteca has added more than 2,500 homes paying fees that were considered inadequate eight years ago. The shortfall — that some suggested was as much as $3,000 per home — means the city may have left at least $7.5 million “on the table.” The $7.5 million cannot legally be made up on the back of future growth as state law is explicit that a new dwelling can only be charged for its proportional share of an amenity.


School growth fees

While the city has no legal standing to force developers into Mello-Roos districts or other funding mechanism to build schools to handle the growth they generate when they build new homes, the city in the past has been able to steer developers into development agreements that help address schools via Mello Roos districts.

They did that in part by using sewer allocations and the growth management ordinance coupled with market demand to fashion a stick that offered development agreements as a carrot.

Those development agreements — most of which were fashioned by McLaughlin in her role as assistant city manager — addressed Mello Roos Districts and even ended providing Manteca more than $25 million in bonus bucks the council could spend as they saw fit in exchange for residential sewer allocation certainty.

Given the growth cap and the clamoring for sewer allocation, having a contract assuring they’d be able to secure sewer connections in subsequent years allowed developers to secure financing from banks that have little appetite for funding a subdivision and then the builder not being able to complete it due to not securing sewer allocations.

This time around the players are also different. While local mainstays such as Raymus Homes, Atherton Homes and Frontiers are still building the landscape in Manteca is now dotted by national builders traded on Wall Street who can no longer build homes in the Bay Area due to scarcity of developable land. National builders have different views on how they interact — or in the mayor’s jargon “how much money they leave on the table” — when it comes to working with cities.


Family entertainment zone

Not only is the Great Wolf waterpark resort deal dead but based on reports negotiations with the new players aren’t go swimmingly.

This may create a significant political problem for the council if a resort — or a mega hotel with a conference center — isn’t secured.

That’s because $8 million plus of remaining redevelopment agency bond proceeds are currently being plowed into the ground west of Costco and between the 120 Bypass and the municipal wastewater treatment plant in the form of infrastructure to make it possible to develop a waterpark resort.

Without the resort, the city will have a tough time at best attracting investors for the family entertainment zone.

The bottom line is the city may be investing $8 million of RDA tax dollars and have nothing to show for it.

That money — under the bond language — could have been spent on a community park or interchanges along the 120 Bypass.

To contact Dennis Wyatt, email