“Simply balancing the budget doesn’t meet community needs. . . I’m here because of that. This community is tired (of how the city is run)” — Manteca Mayor Ben Cantu
Manteca Ben Cantu threw down the gauntlet Tuesday at the special City Council meeting on the municipal budget. He doesn’t think the $45.4 million proposed general fund spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year starting July 1 meets the expectations, needs, and wants of Manteca’s 83,750 residents.
No one is going to argue that. We need better streets. It would be nice to have more police officers and firefighters. Restoring the five-man streets division crews to repair tripping hazards on sidewalks would be welcomed. Having more parks and recreation entities including library facilities to serve changing needs and a growing community seems reasonable. Firefighters being able to use fire engines that aren’t 30 years old and developing issues such as the onboard tank not being able to hold water would be a good thing.
But guess what? This all costs money — lots of money.
And where is this money going to come from?
Cantu correctly points out that this is not his first rodeo as he has nearly 40 years dealing with city hall either as a staff planner, as an entrepreneur working to get private sector projects approved, and now as mayor. But Cantu is no longer the guy opening the chute or part of the paying public forking over $20 to be part of the action. He’s one of the five people working the arena trying to master the beast called government bureaucracy that has a nasty habit of bucking people face first into the ground before time lapses
It was hinted there might be a way to get a $15 million or so grant for an aquatics center. We’ve heard that twice before as a substitute game plan for putting in place growth fees and at the same time asking for either a bond or a parcel charge to build a proposed $32 million library back in 2002. The city’s previous leadership, both elected and on-staff, nearly 20 years ago deserves the criticism that Cantu delved out in his various campaigns and even today as mayor because he is right.
Twice this city relied on a grant application to get a new library funded from state bond money and twice it was rejected. The city then dropped the entire idea of a new library because they couldn’t get a handout from the state.
Back in 2002 was also the time the alarm was raised about the city’s police department being woefully inadequate in terms of space and being about as secure as a sieve is effective at holding water. The city spent more than $5 million buying and making basic structural upgrades to the former Qualex building for a new station yet nothing has changed except the police keep finding more creative ways to jam staff into what are essentially converted closets.
The list goes on and on.
Cantu contends we keep repeating the past. He’s right. But the answer isn’t to keep hammering about perceived past and current sins. It is to change the culture.
On Tuesday when a council colleague suggested places where expenses could be cut to fund a project, Cantu interrupted and said that wasn’t the council’s job but that of staff after they are given direction. Whatever plan they come up with is then brought back to the council for their blessing or rejection.
But to assume the city can keep squeezing existing resources to make lemonade is a sugar-coated fantasy. You can squeeze all you want but after a certain point there is nothing left but rinds.
Perhaps staff can keep being innovative in how they re-arrange the deck chairs but the only solution is for those elected to steer the city to take charge and make the hard decisions to avoid slamming into icebergs whether they are financial or the perception many has that Manteca can do better.
First they need to face some cold hard facts.
Fact No. 1: The city has indeed positioned itself to be able to weather an economic downturn by setting aside the equivalent of 25 percent of the annual cost of day-to-day expenses of providing services. Yet some, including Cantu, keep sounding the alarm as if that isn’t the case. You could argue that the 25 percent reserve is a bit too aggressive and is tying up money that could go elsewhere. And let’s not forget there is also a $2.5 million additional reserve for economic development fed directly by property tax collected primarily by homeowners for the supposed purpose of helping cover the tab for things such as police, fire, and parks.
Fact No. 2: The unfunded employee pension obligations are a killer. Staff does a Herculean job of pointing out what has to be the least sexy thing to discuss yet it is the biggest ticking time bomb in the general fund budget. The staff has suggested — and the council has adopted — moves to help partially defuse the time bomb but it is still looming out there as a $108 million unfunded pension liabilities hammer on city services. So how bad is it in relation to the general fund budget? The city has been working effectively to increase property and sales taxes — the two biggest sources of revenue to run the city. Property taxes for next year are expected to jump an extremely healthy 8.4 percent or $1,013,160 to $17 million. At the same time the general fund share of the pension payments to the California Public Employees Retirement System — of which two of the five council members depend on to fund their retirement — will go up $969,970 to effectively eat away at more than 90 percent of the increase in property tax receipts. Unless property tax revenues increase even more two years from now, the projected change in city contributions to CalPERs will consume all new property tax increases and start eating into gains in sales tax.
Fact No. 3: If elected city leaders really want to fund multiple new initiatives they are going to have to stop ducking the tough question: Are they willing to suggest voters approve new taxes or embrace higher fees? If people want more then give them the opportunity to decide if they do indeed want more. It obviously will take more money than what the city is generating on the provide for even a fraction of wish lists that have been bantered about for the past 30 years.
In many ways, we are our own worst enemy. We demand more services but don’t want what we are already receiving cutback nor do we want to pay new taxes or fees to cover the cost.
Of course the old standby retort is government can find ways to be more efficient. Manteca is not a bloated bureaucracy. City workers already have significantly more responsibilities than other cities of similar size and larger in the region that — by the way — have many of the same exact issues Manteca does. Manteca city park workers care for significantly more acreage than their counterparts elsewhere. We have less police and firefighters per 1,000 residents. Our garbage rates are lower because of efficiencies solid waste workers have imposed. You may disagree but on the whole city services aren’t falling apart.
Elected leaders from Manteca to Washington, D.C., know that it takes more money than people are willing to pay so government can deliver what they want.
If Cantu is sincere in his strident words about the budget as mayor he has a golden opportunity to make it clear it takes money to do what people want. For the most part he does remind people of that. But to believe it is going to come from existing sources with the pension time bomb ticking and other pressing issues is borderline delusional.
That’s why Cantu can take the bold move and push for new taxes.
It doesn’t mean to impose them which he and the council can’t do. What it means is giving the voters the opportunity to tax themselves if they wish to have the world and have it now.
Of course, elected leaders have a tendency not to advocate tax increases because it is viewed as political suicide. Instead they head for cover and pound away with rhetoric.
The last time anyone checked, rhetoric doesn’t get you better streets. Hard cold cash does.