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Weeds, trucks parked everywhere, panhandling & we want to project wealth — here’s your sign
Dennis Wyatt
Dennis Wyatt

Drive down the 120 Bypass heading east. Notice what was once greenery fading fast to dusty hues of yellow and brown. Take the Airport Way exit to reach Big League Dreams and then to the construction site of what is arguably one of the most expensive private sector commercial investments ever in the Northern San Joaquin Valley — the $180 million, 500-room Great Wolf indoor waterpark resort.

As you reach the traffic signal at the end of the ramp wave to the panhandler who has a pile of debris behind him. Look at the right and enjoy the four semi-trucks parked along the edge of Airport Way with two of them double parked. Turning north and soak in the look and feel of the washboard know as Airport Way.

Interested in buying a car? If so glance to your left and enjoy Manteca’s City sanctioned on-street used car lot providing your view isn’t obscured by more semi-trucks double parked along what isn’t even a designated truck route.

If you’re an elected leader you’d have the perfect antidote for what might politely be called an unwelcoming front door to the city — a welcome to Manteca sign.

But as Mayor Ben Cantu will tell you, it shouldn’t be a cheap sign. It should be a sign that costs more money “to project a little bit of wealth.”

One might argue a sign of any type wouldn’t do much “to project a little bit of wealth” if an entry way to the city is lined with panhandlers working an area that is clearly posted saying it is illegal to do so, a major corridor with semi-trucks parked willy-nilly, streets looking like they’ve been to hell and back, and entrepreneurs hawking everything from used cars to floral bouquets along a major arterial.

Cantu has a point about the city having a tendency to do some things on the cheap. But why that happens may have a lot more to do with staffing being kept overtly lean allowing everything from sidewalks to effective code enforcement to fall to the wayside. That has happened because Manteca has been living within its means while making sure they have adequate reserves for emergencies and economic down turns. Manteca is not talking about cutting back existing staffing while we are still in an economic expansion because the city has been spending money like Imdela Marcos in a shoe store. If you want to see where spending tax dollars in an exuberant manner can get you, see what Turlock is up against as they’re on course to burn through reserves in economic good times due to overly enthusiastic hiring and spending.

The Manteca City Council has a lot of “wants” and “needs’ on the table that cost money whether it is additional street lighting on Yosemite Avenue in downtown or coming up short to fund interchange projects that cost between $23 million and $36 million. There also  are demands for more police, more firefighters, more streets workers, and move pavement work.

This all costs money.

And unless the City Council is able to print legal tender that isn’t counterfeit there are only two ways they can get more money — raise taxes or increase fees.

This is a political decision, not a bureaucratic decision. It also has constraints. The state law is clear in that fees can’t be higher than the actual cost (with a reasonable reserve) of providing a service. That includes growth fees in that they can only cover the cost of expenditures such as for a new police station to cover growth’s share and not that of existing residents. As for taxes you have to convince the electorate to support higher taxes.

It’s ironic that the same people who want the city to spend $100,000 as opposed to $7,000 on welcome signs will tell you the city doesn’t have enough money.

This is not to imply the city should not spend money on welcome signs if the council decides it will be an effective municipal benefit.

A complete city has numerous endeavors that must be funded and that are always competing for money. It is a constant give and take process. During the last rough stretch in municipal finances triggered by the Great Recession Dave Bricker and Nick Obligacion who were back-to-back police chiefs during that time made it clear to frustrated residents that wanted more police officers that it could not come at the expense of cannibalizing other city functions such as parks, recreation, streets, and the library.

This is not a pitch for new taxes and higher fees per se. It’s just that if elected officials are going to make passionate cases for spending more money that the city doesn’t have and would need to take from reserves or other city operations they need to have the courage of their convictions and push for higher taxes and fees.

The fantasy that we can enjoy more municipal services and amenities without paying more for them should not be promoted by elected leaders who either promise or demand the moon.

That said Mayor Cantu should be lauded for at least triggering robust dialogues among his colleagues and in the community about “wants” and “needs” in Manteca. Too often under previous city managers such discussions were nipped in the bud given the written directive from the council to have a balanced budget with minimum reserve fund levels and the unwritten directive that the mere mention of raising taxes is an act of blasphemy.

Although at times it may seem the council are like kids with their faces plastered against an old-fashioned glass candy counter squealing “I want this, I want that” that is not necessary a bad thing. Such discussions are a way of educating people on the cost of things they desire.

It opens the door for someone who wants something bad enough such as enhanced library services to propose a parcel tax to pay for it instead of just saying they want something.

The simple truth is you can’t have things whether it is better library services, more police officers, or signs that “project a little bit of wealth” without having the money to pay for them.

If elected leaders want “substantial signs” but don’t want to eat deeply into reserves that could set up a budget Armageddon when the next economic downturn hits, they need to identify what general fund city positions they are willing to cut or suggest a new source of taxes.

The city has engineered sales tax generating deals with the likes of the developers of the Bass Pro Shops anchored Orchard Valley and Costco as well as the room tax split with Great Wolf. All three are designed to generate sales tax revenue the city otherwise would not have received.

Given rising pension and health costs as well as inflation the tax revenue that is — and will be — generated from those deals is helping keep Manteca from being in a position Turlock finds itself in.

Ideally the dialogues started by Mayor Cantu will inspire the community to join in not just to say “we want that too” but to engage in a robust discussion of the affordability of ideas and how they will be paid for whether it is slashing existing expenditures or raising taxes.

And once a thorough vetting has been made on how important the want or need is compared to other city wants and needs, the council can then make the hard decision.

To do something like that would be a much better sign that the city is being well run instead of arguing Manteca should have welcome signs with the stated goal of putting the ones in Ripon and Lathrop to shame.

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209.249.3519.