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LM Fire may close 3 of 4 stations

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POSTED July 21, 2010 1:48 a.m.
LATHROP – The Lathrop-Manteca Fire District may close one or two of its remaining three fire stations that are still open, lay off 10 firefighters, and demote some of its personnel as it struggles to grapple with a budget deficit of $336,244.78 right at the start of the 2010-11 fiscal year on Sept. 1.

The problem of money, or severe lack thereof, is what brought a standing-room-only situation with several others sitting down on the floor during the fire board meeting Tuesday night held at the recently shuttered Mossdale Landing fire station on River Islands Parkway.

In the worst case scenario only one of the district’s four fire station will remain open.

The severity of the fire district’s dire fiscal situation was brought home to those who attended the fire board meeting Tuesday night when an emergency fire crew from the J Street fire station took eight minutes to get to the aid of a cardiac arrest victim on the west side of Interstate 5. Emergency personnel could have arrived at the scene in perhaps less than five minutes had the district’s newest fire station on River Islands Parkway at Mossdale was open. However, that station had been closed for roughly 90 days due to budget cuts.

“Sadly, the man is no longer with us,” said a somber Josh Capper, the local firefighters’ union president, at the meeting.

While it’s arguable if a faster response time could have saved the man’s life, the five-minute response time is a mantra for emergency crews whose job is to respond to heart attacks, cardiac arrests and putting up fires, when every fraction of a second means the difference of life or death situation. The chance of surviving a heart attack or, as in the above case, a cardiac arrest, begins to drop off rapidly after five minutes.

In the case of fire, that time span is also critical because a “flash over” when fires literally erupt occur within five minutes of the first visible flame. From the time an emergency call is placed, equipment is dispatched and the fire engine starts rolling, more than half of the critical five minutes have already gone by, leaving less than three minutes for the firefighters to reach the structure fire or a major medical emergency.

The district has been hard-hit by the Great Recession, with property taxes which is the agency’s major fiscal lifeblood severely eroding its coffers. The district’s budgeted property taxes for the 2009-10 fiscal year was $3,011,143. However, the actual revenue was significantly lower at $2,420,820.24 resulting in more than half a million difference of $590,322.76.

As part of the still ongoing efforts of the district to find ways to avoid making further cutbacks in personnel, services and fire stations, the board last week voted unanimously to place a ballot measure in the November elections. That measure, which is aimed at preventing the permanent closure of “one quarter of local fire stations and maintain 9-1-1 emergency medical response time…,” seeks to increase the existing assessment to “no more than six cents per square foot for commercial property, and three cents per square foot for residential and all other property types….”

The local firefighters union, with Capper serving as their spokesman at the meeting, made the following proposals to solve the budget crisis:

•Consider the retirement of Fire Chief Fred Manding which would save $117,000 in salaries plus $6,500 in associated retirement costs

•Consider also the retirement of the business manager which would save nearly $65,000 a year plus related retirement expenses.

•Also consider retiring the battalion chief, a position created by the fire chief “even after the board stipulated no promotions were to be made,” Capper said. Savings realized from this step would be $92,000 a year plus more than $50,000 in retirement costs.

Capper’s figure, however, were questioned by board member Manuel Medeiros. Capper accepted the corrections saying he was not privy to the exact figures from the budget when he prepared his presentation.

Medeiros also countered that while Capper was suggesting the elimination of the above positions to balance the budget, the union members’ retirement costs are just as fiscally draining to the fire district’s coffers. Capper said that they would welcome any opportunity to sit down and discuss issues with the members of the board.

Gene Neely, who presented the proposed budget to the board Tuesday night, went as far as to state that “everybody will buy their own coffee to save $4,000” – from $9,000 to $5,000 annually.

Medeiros’ proposal was to cut salaries by 5 percent across the board, which is what he suggested to the Manteca Unified School Board of Trustees, he said. Medeiros is also a Board of Trustee with the school district.

“That should do it,” Medeiros said.

However, former Lathrop mayor and fire board of director Gloryanna Rhodes said, “There’s a lot more issues than just cutting 5 percent or 10 percent” from personnel’s salaries.

Besides, she added, a five percent across-the-board pay cut would still require the district to close one fire station and resort to staff layoffs.

As for the possible closure of one or two stations in the district, Rhodes said that the board will have to establish criteria to have that implemented. Those criteria could include response time; however, the board has not made those determinations yet, she added.

“We haven’t even gotten there,” she said of those drastic steps.

But those possibilities are what brought many concerned residents living in the fire district’s county unincorporated jurisdictions to attend the discussion. Among those who came to listen and offer their own input into the discussion were longtime residents and farmers Mike Gikas, Marty and Kerry Harris, and Louie Tallerico of Tallerico Vineyards, LLC. Representing the Lathrop City Council was Councilman Christopher Mateo.

The board still has a number of meetings to discuss the budget before its adoption prior to the end of the district’s fiscal year which is on Aug. 31.

Lathrop-Manteca Fire District has four stations, with only the following three currently open after the newest station at Mossdale Landing was closed due to budget cuts: Station 1 on J Street in Historic Lathrop, the Nile Station on Union Road near Nile Garden School, and New Haven Station on East Lathrop Road near New Haven School.
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