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The dawn of a new era in city government
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It was, if you will, a Declaration of Reality.

Fifteen men and women with varied backgrounds and political viewpoints came together in the winter of 2009.

They had answered the Manteca City Council’s call to serve on a citizens ad hoc budget committee to address the impact of the housing bubble exploding and the anticipated financial aftershocks it would have on municipal services.

In just five months after their first meeting the city needed to address an $11.3 million deficit based on revenue trends versus expenses. If nothing was done the deficit would swell to $15.6 million in the fiscal year starting July 1, 2012.

The challenge was daunting. The city was just over a year into four-year contracts with all of the municipal employee bargaining groups. The contracts included - among other things - 5 percent annual raises. Pension and health insurance benefit costs were soaring.

Sacramento also was getting ready to seize $1.2 million in property taxes from the city’s general fund in a bid to plug a state budget deficit to avoid thinning the ranks of state employees or programs.

City staff had made the somewhat easy choices already in terms of keeping positions vacant and similar moves. They started doing that a full year earlier having recognized the proverbial writing on the wall.

One of the committee members suggested putting a tax vote on the ballot. The discussion that followed had virtually every employee group representative in the room sitting on the edge of their chair. It was an idea that was dead on arrival. Committee member after committee member reeled off the reasons why: They knew people who were losing their homes to foreclosure. Unemployment in Manteca was at 12 percent and rising. They knew of family members and friends who had to accept reduced hours or cuts in pay to keep their jobs. People wouldn’t vote to raise taxes to keep municipal workers’ jobs and pension intact while they were either losing their jobs, losing pay, losing hours or paying more and more for benefits.

Even the member who proposed making a general tax vote a recommendation for the council to consider agreed it would be the wrong thing to do given the private sector economy.

The committee pored over reports on funds and how money could legally be spent. They were told personnel costs were close to 85 percent of the general fund and that public safety was almost 65 percent of all municipal expenditures.

In the end, the recommendation was clear: Secure compensation concessions from employees in order to impact service levels as little as possible and find new and more efficient ways to provide municipal services.

That is exactly what the city has done over the past two years along with tapping into reserves.

And now - just over two years later - that $15.6 million projected deficit is down to $4.25 million. Unemployment is on the way back down from a post World War II high of 16.1 percent in Manteca to 14.1 percent. It is still, however, higher than it was two years ago. There are still foreclosures coming down the line although there is a growing belief that Manteca is at the bottom of the market and will stay there for years to come.

Job growth in the all-important Silicon Valley is starting to pick up steam.

Even though there may be some encouraging signs, few are holding on to hope that things will return to the way they once were.

It is a new reality.

Government at all levels has to live within the means that taxpayers can afford. And right now, that isn’t a lot.

We are entering an era of lowered expectations in terms of what government can - and should - do. At the same time there is an expectation that the city must keep finding ways to make things work.

It is a message that city leaders have heard loud and clear.

And now that the money - general fund reserves squirreled away for such an occasion - is almost all gone the city has two options left to bridge the projected deficit for the fiscal year starting in four days. They must secure additional compensation reduction concessions from employees or eliminate positions.

We are no longer living in 2006 that historians may one day identify as the zenith of a wild roller coaster ride fueled by speculation and greed. Instead, we are living in 2011. And if things are done right, this could be looked upon one day as when we adjusted to reality and traded the idea of quick profits and instant gratification for long-term growth and stability.