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Mayor Cantu asked: How do we pay for better streets? Here’s a possible answer.
Dennis Wyatt
Dennis Wyatt

Mayor Ben Cantu asked a question that one hopes is not rhetorical: How do we pay for better streets?

Cantu is the latest in a string of mayors wrestling with the reality that property taxes simply don’t come close to covering the tab to provide municipal necessities and amenities to the occupants of the homes being taxed.

One may pay $4,000 a year in property taxes on a $400,000 home but given how schools and the county take the biggest chunks the city is lucky to get $600. Try to squeeze out money for a $1.2 million upgrade of deteriorating streets in Mayors Park after picking apart $600 in property tax receipts to pay $125,000 to $150,000 for an entry level firefighter or police officer, buying a $500,000 replace fire engine, keeping parks in shape, and a long laundry list of civic needs and amenities.

Of course there are other sources of income such as sales tax that many of us opt out of paying to the city of Manteca when we spend money online or out of town. Yes Amazon customers et al are now paying sales taxes but if you think there is anywhere close to 100 percent collection of sales tax on the bulk of Amazon transactions that involve third party vendors you also probably think South Main Street southbound in front of Walmart represents the smoothest pavement in Manteca. Keep in mind that on the taxes that are collected a penny of every 8.25 cents of sales tax collected on a transaction in Manteca goes to the city’s general fund and a half cent to help augment public safety staffing. The rest goes to the state except for a half cent in Measure K levies that help pay for road sand transportation within San Joaquin County.

Also keep in mind, as Cantu astutely pointed out, that the $1.2 million upgrade now planned for some time in 2020 for the Mayors Park neighborhood bounded by Louise Avenue, Union Road, and the railroad tracks is not what “really” should be done in terms of the best solution. Instead it is simply what the city can afford to do to try and squeeze out an additional 10 years or more of good driving surfaces to avoid an extremely expensive rebuilding of the entire streets from the base on up.

So what is the answer? Two words: Political courage.

Previous councils passed twice on arguably the most painless way to generate funds to maintain neighborhood streets. The “way” is to incorporate the cost of ongoing and future street maintenance into community facility districts attached to homes in new subdivisions.

Such a suggestion was made to use the CFD to fund additional police and another time to fund street maintenance. Each time elected leaders shot down the idea as being unfair for future owners of new homes — most of which likely won’t be current city residents. They finally relented to a degree and started requiring CFDs in new subdivisions to include the cost of park maintenance and street lighting upkeep. Staff suggested storm system maintenance as well be tied to neighborhood CFDs but that didn’t any traction.

The gobbledygook given to nix such a CFD charge was that it was unfair to require those who live in newer homes to pay for streets and police through a special taxing district when others didn’t. It also was pointed out that it would be difficult to justify the law enforcement CFD charge if there wasn’t a way of tracking to make sure the neighborhood being assessed for the police services they were being charged for actually received them. While paying for police through a CFD might be problematic, collecting money to do work on streets within a subdivision is straightforward.

A better way of describing previous objections would have been using a CFD in such a manner would be creating “two Mantecas”.

What it would really do is guarantee buyers of new homes and subsequent owners in a new neighborhood that they would have street maintenance work done in a timely manner in their neighborhood basically because they are paying for it. If owners of existing homes wanted the same assurance, all they would have to do is petition the City Council to call for the formation of a CFD in their neighborhood and put it to a vote of the property owners within that neighborhood.

The amount the city would need to collect for street upgrades based on 2019 dollars may not be that staggering. The Del Webb at Woodbridge neighborhood is a prime example. The city plans to spend $1.2 million this year on streets work in the 1,406-home neighborhood that broke ground more than 12 years ago. To collect $1.2 million in 12 years on 1,406 homes a CFD levy would have to be $71.12 on an annual basis. Given the need for a cushion or reserve that amount may have to be closer to $80 per year. And unlike the city’s other fees, the CFDs are adjusted annually for inflation and funding shortfalls.

It would be a hard sell for older neighborhoods but if the city could put in a system that means their streets will be addressed properly in terms of upkeep with major work every 10 to 12 years you might find people willing to pay the price.

While this may not be “the” solution it certainly is more effective and fruitful than the council simply instructing staff as they always do to “find some money.”

This is as ludicrous as an individual trying to figure out how they are going to pay for a new car without shifting money from other household expenses and/or finding additional work to do instead start rummaging through seat cushions or launching a GoFundMe drive.

Yes, you will find some loose change around the house but it won’t be enough by far. And you might even get a bit of traction on a GoFundMe account which is the equivalent of hitting up the state and federal governments for money with the added caveat you are doing it after beating both levels up for handing out tax dollars as if they are nothing more than Halloween candy treats.

How we fund government is akin to a Rubik’s Cube. There are a lot of moving parts that when you move them rarely do you come up with the desired or promised results. And just like a Rubik’s Cube trying to explain how taxing and fees work is anything but straightforward. There is a twisted logic to both solving the Rubik’s Cube and how our tax system works.

The use of more muscular CFDs that are essentially good old-fashioned parcel taxes within a set boundary whether it is based on new subdivisions or citywide is probably the most effective answer to the mayor’s question on how do we pay for better streets.

The real question is will the City Council have the courage to act?