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Manteca’s sidewalks are as bad as the city has allowed them to be cracked up to be
DENNIS WYATT/The Bulletin The 100 block of North Maple Avenue’s temporary fixes for uplifted sidewalks are typical of how Manteca addresses similar issues citywide.

Want to take a walk on the wild side?

Then strap on knee and elbow pads, put on your walking shoes, and head to the 100 block of North Maple Avenue just north of downtown Manteca.

In this one block is a collection of what ails Manteca when it comes to sidewalks. There are uplifted segments of sidewalk — many with a poor-man’s patch work of crumbling asphalt repairs. Some sidewalk segments instead of being uplifted by trees have collapsed inward. Uneven sidewalk that is edging toward tripping status is rampant. There are even missing chunks of sidewalk.

Before anyone has a cow and reads this as a slam of city workers or current municipal management let’s be clear why this exists. Elected councils dating back to 2002 have either promised and failed to deliver or else have given lip service to sidewalk repairs and putting in place missing segments.

Sidewalks of course are a low priority compared to making sure the Daniels Street extension is put in place and made spiffy so non-residents dropping $500 or so on a room and food during a stay at Great Wolf see a different Manteca than those that live here in the land of sidewalks streaked with asphalt spread with the consistency of melted granola bars.

This is not a slap at city street workers that are a third in number compared to what they were in 2008 before the Great Recession and before the city added 15,000 residents.

It is a slap at city leaders for continuing to drink the Kool-Aid poured by former City Manager Karen McLaughlin who rationalized it was OK to take what is now more than $1.3 million in annual property taxes that are collected primarily on homes that had been diverted to the redevelopment agency and use it instead to create an economic development reserve. McLaughlin — pressured by the then council to find a replacement for RDA funds that were once doled out to business in the name of economic development — pointed to the freed up  property taxes the RDA had been siphoning and argued it was OK to use that money because “the city had gotten along fine without it.”

Take a look around at city sidewalks. Check out city streets. If this is fine we need to talk.

Imagine what the city could do with sidewalks if they spent $1.3 million a year on them until they were fixed.

Of course we can’t do that because now the city’s attention is focused on inventorying and prioritizing needed sidewalk work so they can say they are working to comply with ADA regulations. This process has been going on for three plus years and counting.

The odds are when the plan is finished in the next year or three we will be told the city lacks the funds to do the work. The council will tell the staff to find the money even though $1.3 million is hiding in plain sight.

Whether they want to admit it or not the current council owns the sidewalk problem. When they endorse policies advanced by staff it becomes their policy.

So what should the council do besides nothing?

The easiest thing to do and the one we know they won’t do is to suspend diverting money into their precious economic development fund as it is always more important to fund ways to subsidize new business than it is to make sure residents have safe sidewalks.

All they would have to do is take $1.3 million for the initial year and hire four additional street workers for $300,000. The balance — $1 million — would go into a fund specifically to pay for sidewalk repairs. The second year they can fund the economic slush fund and then in the third year divert $1.3 million again to sidewalks. They can keep the pattern going until they’ve addressed all sidewalk issues. By then the four street positions should be absorbed into the budget unless someone at city hall really thinks they can get by maintaining streets in a city that by then will have over 100,000 residents with a third of the number of street workers they had in 2008 when Manteca had 68,000 residents.

There is another option to start chipping away at the growing sidewalk crisis. The council needs to consider putting sidewalk maintenance on the back of property owners. At first glance this may appear akin to asking the council to commit political suicide.

But if it is true from their perspective that it would be the end of Manteca to defund the economic development reserve for several years, they don’t have much choice. Unless, that is, they want to do what those before them have done and pay lip service to sidewalk maintenance.

How it could work is simple. The city contacts property owners to tell them of sidewalk deficiencies and gives them six months to address them. 

If they are not addressed, the city will then secure a contractor to do the work.

The property owner would be given three options. They could reimburse the city for the actual work upfront or make interest free payments either quarterly or monthly. The third option would be an interest free lien against the property that is paid when it is sold or ownership changes hands upon a death.

Yes the city would be carrying the debt interest free but it gets public safety issues involving sidewalks addressed.

The work, if the property owner is unable to pay, would still get done.

Whatever interest the city ends up forfeiting can be justified in the potential savings from less claims filed against the city from people doing impromptu face plants.

There is a third option which is to feign concern and do nothing but posture.

In a way you’ve got to feel sorry for the council. The have inherited a number of issues that have been years in the making.

Many of those issues — including sidewalks — will require suspending some city norms or at least having the moxie to dig in their proverbial heels.

Staff is not to blame for sidewalks in Manteca slipping toward Third World status. What gets done in Manteca and what doesn’t get done is ultimately a political decision involving a finite amount of tax dollars while balancing concerns such as a need for reserves.

If the status quo is fine for the council then they need to come clean. Grinding down sidewalk rises is a luxury that Manteca can’t afford due to municipal staffing. And funding sidewalk repairs isn’t going to happen next year, the following year or the year after that. That’s not speculation. It is based on the city’s track record of the last 11 years.

To paraphrase a city official, “we get the kind of the community that our elected leaders allow to happen”.