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40% of Lathrop sales tax going for fire services

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POSTED November 21, 2012 12:12 a.m.

LATHROP – The gentleman’s agreement between the Lathrop Manteca Fire District and the City of Lathrop is official.

At least 40 percent of the funds generated by the Measure C – the one-cent sales tax increase overwhelmingly approved by voters – will be set aside for the struggling agency that had to take out a loan of more than $540,000 from the city last year.

Public safety was one of the major tenets listed in the ballot description that outlined what the money could be used for. The city expects to collect $2 million annually, and $800,000 of that will go to the district.

But getting the 4-1 approval, with lame-duck Vice Mayor Christopher Mateo dissenting, was a rocky road filled with an influx of community comments slamming the council members holding out for a litany of reasons – ranging from the desire to table it because the oft-discussed citizens oversight committee hasn’t been formed to the fact that Monday marked their last meeting as a member of the body.

Councilwoman Martha Salcedo – who overwhelmingly won reelection and will be sworn in for another four-year term next month – hinted that she wasn’t exactly hot about the idea even before finance director Cari James gave her report.

“We need to make sure that we are transparent,” said Salcedo, who had talked about the need for the oversight committee. “The residents trusted us. We need to keep their complete trust if we ever want anything else from them in the future – it’s only fair.”

Mateo then jumped into the fray by suggesting that if the fire district is going to be getting 40 percent, then Lathrop Police Services should get 40 percent as well before questioning why the city is talking about distributing money that they don’t even have yet.

“At best I’d like to table this for the next administration – not that I’m a lame duck,” Mateo said. “At worst I wouldn’t vote for this.”

He affirmed his position later.

“I’m only one vote, and I’m voting no right now. For this to go down the drain would be bad. I think it should be tabled.”

The issue that Salcedo and Mateo took umbrage with was the percentage that the 2-by-2 committee – a pair of representatives from the council and a pair of representatives from the district – came up with preliminarily and agreed to before the city decided to move forward with the necessary funding.

According to Fire Chief Gene Neely, it was that handshake agreement that led the council to move forward with hiring the consultant that polled residents to gauge interest and subsequently cover the cost for the measure’s placement on November’s ballot.

Rather than going with a special tax – where have required a two-thirds plus one vote to pass – that signified the money could only be spent on public safety, Lathrop opted for the much easier general tax route.

And that opened up the can of worms of what to do with the funding once it starts to roll in.

James said that the city will start collecting tax in April of 2013, and the first true-up with the district will come in September – the first time that they would actually see a check.

They’re expected to start paying off the loan given by the city by the end of fiscal year 2013/14, and will have to do so without Measure C funding.

Fortunately for Neely, he won’t have to wait before getting his staffing levels back up to where they need to be in order to best serve the residents of Lathrop – especially those that live within the city limits.

A federal grant that the district received because they had such low staffing levels allowed for the filling of nine new positions, and the new funding will likely help cover the cost of the majority of those positions when that grant runs out two years from now.

In order to be in compliance with the framework set up for Measure C, the district will have to create a separate budget for the money that they receive that can be followed by the independent oversight committee. Because of the loan from the city, the district’s books are already open.

“You told me to be fiscally responsible and that’s what I’ve done,” Neely said. “I’ve taken away from capital improvement projects and engine repairs to keep as many people as possible responding to 911 calls. I can’t do that any longer.”

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