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Fire district: 9-1-1 call to voters
Lathrop-Manteca Fire board OKs Nov. 2 parcel tax vote
Bennie Gatto, chairman of the Lathrop-Manteca Fire District board of directors, gestures during discussion about the proposed tax measure to prevent the closure of two fire stations and the layoff of 10 firefighters. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO
LATHROP – The Lathrop-Manteca Fire District will have until August 6 to fine-tune the language of the parcel tax measure that will be on the ballot in the November elections.

The inclusion in the ballot of the tentatively titled “Lathrop-Manteca Fire District Emergency 9-1-1 Fire and Medical Response Preservation Measure” was unanimously approved by the district’s board of directors at their meeting last week.

A special board meeting Tuesday night, held in the now-closed fire station at Mossdale Landing, offered the directors an opportunity to rescind their earlier vote after listening to the input from concerned district residents and the results of a survey presented by the consultants hired by the district to see what the chances are for the measure to pass by a two-thirds vote by district electors in November.

Despite the strong recommendation by the consultants that, based on the statistics gathered from a sampling of the voters, the “measure is not feasible at this time” and would not have a chance of being approved, the directors let their prior decision stay.

“I’d fear for the district if you put something on the ballot now,” commented Catherine Lew, president of The Lew Edwards Group of Oakland which conducted the survey.

With the “predictable results” from the survey, the district stands to lose $40,000 to $60,000 if the measure fails. The figures given by Lew are the amounts the district is expected to spend to get the measure to the voters. To get the measure on the ballot alone is estimated to cost about $25,000.

But several district residents who attended the discussion were adamantly in favor of proceeding with the measure.

As a businessman, said City of Lathrop resident J. “Chaka” Santos, he has “a million-in-one chance to get his product on a store shelf.” Today, his product is on 1,500 stores’ shelves “because of the passion I have,” he said.

It’s that kind of passion that will carry the proposed measure to victory in the polls, he said.

“You can’t put a price on safety and somebody’s life being saved. I think we should go forward,” he said at the meeting.

Citing yet another example where sheer determination could win the day, he said, “Nobody thought Obama could win either. And nobody thought (Lathrop mayor) Kristy Sayles could win (in the 2008 elections), and they won! Let’s get out there. I’m willing to help; I’ll donate a bunch of food” for volunteers who will work on the campaign.

“We got to have it done; we have to get it done,” Santos added. “This is not just about five guys (the district’s board of directors). It’s about everybody. It’s about community. It’s about us.”

“We will fail in service if we don’t do this,” chimed in Josh Capper, the president of the Lathrop-Manteca firefighters local union.

During his prepared speech before the board of directors, he told of an incident that happened earlier in the day which threw into sharp relief the tragic consequences if two or three of the district’s four stations are closed due to lack of funds.

With the station in Mossdale Landing closed (it operated for three years because of a $1.1 million grant from the city but that was used up three months ago with nothing more coming from the pipeline), Station 1 on J Street had to respond to a cardiac arrest in west Lathrop. It took eight minutes for emergency crews to arrive at the home of the victim, and were unable to save the victim’s life.

“These decisions are hard, and I know nobody likes taxes, but taxes are a necessary evil,” Capper said.

Without money coming in to supplement the district’s dwindling income from property taxes, the district will lose 10 firefighters on top of the half dozen that have already been let go. The district also receives funds from other sources such as permit and assessment fees, but these are not enough to save the district’s financial boat.

Manteca farmer Mike Gikas said the proposed measure will be a “hard sell” especially in these hard economic times.

“I hate to see this go and fail,” he said.

But there was also a lot of optimism.

“I think we can make it happen,” said board chairman and former city mayor Bennie Gatto about getting the proposed measure win in the November elections. “I think we can make it go” if people get mobilized.

“It takes a lot of work” to get something like this passed, said retired fire division chief Chester Smith who pointed out that the last effort took place in 1981. There were only 12 of them at that time when Jim Ennis was the fire chief, he said.

But “we all walked and talked to voters. We walked and did this for months. It takes a lot of work,” Smith said.

Another farmer, Marty Harris, said he does not know “what it’s going to take” to get the proposal win in the coming elections. But, he added, “nobody wants to see this district fail.”

Director Gloryanna Rhodes said she was “convinced it’s not the time to go” the way of the ballot. However, “without winning this election, we don’t know where else to go,” she said.