LATHROP – The closure of up to two Lathrop-Manteca Fire District stations and the loss of seven to 10 firefighters are no longer a matter of if but when after the board decided not to put the parcel tax increase measure in the November elections.
The 3-2 majority vote was made at a special meeting Wednesday night which rescinded the board’s earlier decision to proceed with the measure.
Board of directors Gloryanna Rhodes and Bennie Gatto, both former mayors of Lathrop, voted to put the measure on the ballot but were outvoted by Frank Cavaco, Manuel Medeiros, and Bill Mahaffey.
Firefighters local union president Josh Capper said Station 32 on South Union Road near Nile Garden School, and Station 34 at Mossdale Landing in west Lathrop are the two that could be shuttered due to lack of funds.
“Station 32 and station 34 are the top options (for closure) at this point. One of those will potentially be closed,” Capper said.
At the Wednesday meeting, the board also “put the word out about issuing layoff notices very soon,” he added.
The directors, though, did not give any exact number as to how many will be laid off; however, it could be up to 10, Capper said.
It is not also known at this time how soon the layoff will be implemented.
But the union is hoping that through concessions, “we could rescind some of those layoff notices shortly. We’re talking about doing it this week or next week,” Capper said.
The layoff process will be strictly based on seniority, he said.
“Several families will be affected by this because virtually all (fire) employees have, at least, close to four years of experience,” Capper added.
The three board members who voted against proceeding with the ballot measure to raise the parcel taxes of property owners in the fire district, cited two main reasons: the $25,000 it would have cost to place the measure on the Nov. 2 elections, and what they said perceived as the lack of adequate time to “educate the voters” on what measure ballot is all about to get it passed by a two-thirds vote.
However, Medeiros said he was opposed to the ballot measure because “I don’t want to raise more taxes. I didn’t want to go out and ask people for more money. Right now is not the time for it.”
The longtime farmer who lives in rural north Manteca added, “I did what I thought was right for the community and that’s all I have to say. I didn’t do this because of Manuel, I did this because of the community. Maybe I was wrong, but it was my belief.”
Cavaco, who lives in Lathrop, and Mahaffey who resides in rural north Manteca, could not be reached for comment as of press time. A woman who answered the phone at his home said he was at a meeting Thursday evening.
Gatto said he did not want to spend $25,000 to get the measure on the ballot plus additional expenses needed to get it passed, but “the firemen kept saying ‘we can do it; we’ll walk even if we get laid off.’ So, I thought, maybe give them a chance.”
The district has already lost about $2 million in property taxes the last two years due to the Great Recession, and is currently six firefighters short due to retiring personnel who were not replaced, he pointed out.
“We don’t want to lay off anybody, so what we’re trying to do is to see if we could come up money-wise by cutting here and cutting there and maybe asking for concessions” from the firefighters’ union such as taking a five percent pay cut and contributing more to their retirement “because right now, our retirement budget is $1.5 million a year and that’s killing us,” Gatto said.
“It’s got to be a cooperative effort (between the district and the union) to make this work. We got to save jobs, that’s the bottom line,” he added.
Rhodes said she voted to proceed with the ballot measure because “the firefighters were really gung-ho” about pounding the pavement and talking to people about the importance of raising the property taxes to keep the fire stations open and the level of fire service at status quo.
“I felt that there was a chance (to get the measure passed). If it would have passed, it would have resolved a lot of issues. It’s almost like, you don’t have a lot of life savers, but if you have one, you got to throw it out,” Rhodes said.
“I don’t know how the board is going to do it – the money is not there – but we don’t want to shut a station down, and we don’t want to lay people off, but there’s nothing you can do,” she added.
Capper, on behalf of the union members, said he argued with the board that the tax hikes from the ballot measure “for most people (in the district) would be just the cost of a cup of coffee.”
“We even brought forth to the board that property taxes are tax deductible at the end of the year, and (keeping the stations open) also help decrease insurance. So there was a lot of reasons why we thought (the ballot measure) should be pursued,” he said.
Unfortunately, the majority of the board did not buy their arguments.
The fire district stands to lose up to a third of its 28 full-time sworn firefighters excluding Chief Fred Manding and Deputy Chief Gene Neely.
Manding was on vacation and was not present at Wednesday night’s meeting.
In an effort to find a solution to the fire district’s funding dilemma, the board of directors and the Lathrop City Council will be meeting on Monday in City Hall’s council chambers. The meeting will begin at 6 p.m. and is open to the public.
“We’re encouraging our citizens to attend that and express their concerns,” Capper said.