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Mothball aerial fire truck to save $1.1M annually

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POSTED April 11, 2009 4:49 a.m.
The day of reckoning is about to arrive.

April revenue figures together with cost recovery strategies and cuts being put in place will give Manteca municipal leaders a clear picture of the bottom line. Depending upon those figures, Manteca may need to cut anywhere from $2 million to $4 million by July 1 to balance the 2009-10 budget.

Unless something gives – employee group wage and benefit concessions at least on a temporary basis – the stage will be set for the declaring of a fiscal emergency that could suspend contracts for the duration.

This is something the Manteca Firefighters Association may want to avoid at all costs.

The reason is simple. Three-man staffing of fire engines was conceded by the city in the current contract. Instead of two-man staffing being the minimum with three-man preferable – which arguably would have been the right language that should have been in the contract – the city incurs $500,000 in overtime now for firefighters when training conflicts or there is an illness.

In an emergency fiscal situation, going back to two-man staffing would save taxpayers over $1.1 million a year in straight benefits and salary. Add overtime avoidance and you are pushing $1.6 million. Would it be an ideal situation? No. Would it work? Yes.

The city could also elect to put its $1 million, 100-foot aerial platform truck on ice a year to reduce manpower by nine positions needed to staff it 24-7. That would be a savings of over $1.1 million annually without any change in the current level of service.

Combine that with two-man engines, and the savings would balloon to around $2.6 million.

No one is picking on the fire department.

The fire department handled 4,823 calls in 2008. Of those, 3,120 were medical emergencies of which two-man staffing would-be more than adequate especially given the fact Manteca District Ambulance is rolling a two-man crew as well. There were 601 service calls for which two-man staffing would be fine. There were 832 other emergencies. Fire calls came to 270 of which many were brush fires, dumpster fires or vehicle fires that two-man departments like Lathrop Manteca Fire Department handle with relative ease.

Yes, there is a federal standard reaquiring three men on scene before someone enters a burning building. City protocol now dispatches at least two engines to a structure fire. The first engine could have a firefighter assess the situation and be prepared to enter when additional manpower arrives.

Three-man staffing is better than two and four-man staffing is even better just as two-man patrol units would be better than just having one police officer in a car at any given time.

The only big places left for cuts in a general fund budget where 85 percent of the costs are labor-related are the fire and parks departments.

Manteca Police already has 14 support and front-line positions vacant. The police are getting perilously close to the minimum funding level dictated in the voter approved Measure M public safety half cent sales tax back in 2006.

The department’s overtime is unpredictable. If the lead officer in a major crime is nearing OT, they don’t simply tell the victim sorry that they’ve got to clock out. The other real big OT killer are court dates. Shifting personnel doesn’t do the trick either as many cops work graveyard or swing and have a court appointment during the day.

They have to go to court on their days off typically and sit until such time the judge is ready. The city could simply only send cops to felony cases but that would open them for contempt of court charges.

You could also eliminate the entire parks maintenance staffing that’s in the general fund and still not be able to plug the deficit.

This brings us back to the fire department.

It would be wise for them to take the bull by the horns and push for dropping the aerial fire truck staffing for at least the next fiscal year. That gives a quick, relatively painless $1.1 million in savings.

Then it would behoove employee groups acting in concert to determine if suspending retirement contributions for a year to some degree or salary rollbacks would do the trick coupled with mothballing the aerial fire truck for a year.

If they don’t and a fiscal emergency is declared, the Manteca City Council is completely in control of all the marbles.
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