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Fiscal light at the end of tunnel for LMFD

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POSTED November 28, 2012 1:59 a.m.

LATHROP – It wasn’t exactly a smooth road to winning the approval of the Lathrop City Council.

But after the Lathrop Manteca Fire District got the nod that they’d be receiving 40 percent of the revenue generated by Measure C – the city’s recently passed one-cent sales tax increase – the cash-strapped independent entity will now be able to focus more on phenomenally important jobs they’re tasked with doing and less on when the economy will pick up and once again provide fiscal stability. 

And that’s music to the ears of Fire Chief Gene Neely.

For the last year Neely has been pulling every string he can think of to make sure that service to the community isn’t interrupted while the district’s administration and Board of Directors looked into ways to provide an infusion of cash.

Knowing that the gentleman’s agreement forged in the 2-by-2 meetings that stretch back to former City Manager Cary Keaten’s tenure is now set in stone, Neely is now able to once again look ahead  instead of fixating on what will happen from day to day.

“The relationship that we had was harmonious,” Neely said of the relationship that the district had with the city when both sides sat down to begin discussing the possibility of a sales tax increase. “Both sides had a goal in mind and we knew we wanted to serve the residents and give them exactly what it was that they wanted.

“And this will allow for us to provide the sort of protection that we need in densely populated areas in Lathrop. When you don’t have that, and you’re not able to respond to a structure fire properly, the house next door goes up. That’s how entire blocks get burned, and we believe that this will give us the staffing to prevent things like that from happening.”

The guarantee of the 40 percent – which will come in sparse chunks between now and September of 2013 and will start rolling in steadily thereafter – isn’t, however, equivalent to a blank check.

Because of a loan of nearly $550,000 from the city, the district will have to start making arrangements to pay that back from funding sources other than Measure C. Neely said that a fiscal calendar had already been drawn up to start paying that back in 2015, but having additional cash on hand – an estimated $800,000 annually – to pay for staffing should move that table up.

Then there’s the small matter of the citizen’s oversight committee that will have access to the segmented portion of the district’s budget that specifically list the funds and where they are being spent.

Immediate plans call for the funding to cover the nine firefighter positions currently being paid for by the Federal SAFER grant (staffing for adequate fire and emergency response). Those positions, said Neely, will enable the district to run calls within Lathrop’s city limits with three people per engine instead of the current two. This will allow for immediate fire attack and entry to a structure fire once both engines arrive on scene – leaving an engineer outside to manage the set-up and pumping of water to extinguish the blaze.

“It’s going to make a huge difference in what we do,” Neely said. “We’re excited to be in this position. And we’re grateful to the community for making this happen.”

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