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Firefighters: Fire fire chief
Rank & file charge brass ignored deficit
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LATHROP – In the midst of Lathrop-Manteca Fire District’s worst budget crisis since its founding in 1936, its union firefighters are stepping forward with a laundry list of suggestions to help soften the fiscal blow.

But while doing so, the union is also airing in public some dirty administration laundry.

Two realities that serve as backdrop to the volatile situation at hand:

• the district’s firefighters have not had a salary increase in the last five years,

• property tax revenue, the sole income for the district, dropped by $1 million last year alone due to the effects of The Great Recession.

Josh Capper, the president of the Lathrop-Manteca Firefighters union, Local #4317, did not pull any punches when he spoke to the members of the district’s board of directors Tuesday night. Among the cost-cutting suggestions he presented:

• Eliminate the chief officers’ stipend when running calls after work hours, as well as the $300 per weekend pay that they receive, for an estimated savings of $60,000 per year.

• Change the way the chief officers accrue and utilize sick leave and vacation hours. “Currently, chief officers accrue sick leave and vacation in the same increments as line personnel; however, when taken, they only use eight hours for every 24 hours that line personnel use. This allows them to accrue a much larger amount which consequently costs the district upon their retirement,” Capper pointed out. The district learned that hard lesson, he said, when the last two fire chiefs retired and had to pay “exorbitant amounts of money” for those accrued but unused sick leave and vacation pay.

• Have the board of directors forgo their monthly meeting stipend of $100 per meeting and $75 for each special meeting for an annual savings of $7,500.

• Stop the use of official vehicles for personal uses by administrative staff and to use them only for business, and to have the vehicles parked at the station when they are off duty.

• Have the fire chief, the district’s business manager, and the battalion chief all “consider” retirement. Salary and associated retirement costs for the chief would save a total of $182,000 ($117,000 in salary and nearly $65,000 in retirement). Those figures for the battalion chief are $92,000 a year in salary and more than $50,000 in retirement. Cost savings for the business manager’s retirement: $65,000.

The reasons for the above cost-saving proposals are two-fold, Capper told the board.

“The executive staff have not been successful in leading this department and averting financial crisis, and because the majority, if not all, of their workload is currently being completed by Division Chief (Gene) Neely. There doesn’t seem to be the need or justification for the other personnel at this point. Furthermore, it has to be recognized that a guaranteed retirement check is a lot more beneficial than an unemployment check,” Capper explained.

Some of these cost-cutting proposals were presented to administration officials “many months ago” but “our proposals were adamantly refused,” Capper said.

While their proposals may appear as an attack on the district’s administration, he told the board, “I can assure you that is not the case. We are merely trying to curb unnecessary costs while continuing to provide the service to the citizens. …And as someone recently mentioned, during a financial crisis, sometimes you have to trim the tree from the top.”

Capper, speaking on behalf of the union members, expressed their “complete and utter disappointment in the administrative staff who have failed to effectively foresee this crisis from happening.”

There is no one to blame for the “economic meltdown,” he said, but since the administration knew there was a deficit of $400,000 coming into the 2009-10 fiscal year, administrative staff should have foreseen the crisis and should have immediately taken necessary cost-cutting measures at that time “but did not.”

Instead, the administration “spent an unknown amount of money on station beautification” by painting the district’s two outlying stations on South Union Road near the Nile Garden School, and the East Lathrop station near the New Haven School, charged Capper.

In making the above statements and proposals, the union members are fully aware that they are “furthering the rift between the line personnel and the administration,” said Capper reading from a prepared statement at the meeting,

“Unfortunately, at this point, it is a necessary evil. We can no longer sit idly by and watch the ship be run aground. In …making the (these) suggestions we know that there will be reprisal and retaliation. We have already started to experience the animosity against us. Nevertheless, we will stay the course united in action. …We have advocated from the beginning that this course of action is not personal towards anyone; it’s just business…, and right now business is bad,” he said.

Only Manuel Medeiros of the five board directors commented on Capper’s statements. He told the union president that he missed to mention one significant expense in the district’s budget, which is the union members’ retirement cost of $200,000 a year.

“What can we do about it? And it’s ongoing. Your retirement (costs) create a lot of problems for us. I believe your retirement is really what’s causing us a lot of (budget) problems). No company can afford this kind of retirement expenses. I hope we can mitigate this,” Medeiros said.

Capper said the union will be “willing to mitigate” the costs and that “we’re willing to sit down and talk” with the district officials and discuss this issue.
One firefighter at the meeting said they have not had any salary raise in the last five years.

The other reality, however, is that property tax is the district’s sole source of revenue. As Medeiros explained, last year alone, due to The Great Recession and mortgage meltdown which sent  that revenue source plunging to depths the district has not seen since its founding in 1936, the loss to district’s coffers was $1 million.

During budget discussions last year, fire board chairman Bennie Gatto said that he believes part of their present fiscal problems resulted in the district’s lack of foresight during the incorporation of the city of Lathrop in setting up funding down the line for fire services.

“The city got off real lightly when we incorporated because LAFCo said Lathrop-Manteca Fire District will be the sole proprietor for the city without funding; we still relied on property tax,” Gatto said during last year’s budget discussions.

“We’re sitting here pulling our hair out, whatever is left. We should have been more diligent. Nobody looked that far down the line but we can’t go back now,” he said.

When the city incorporation was finalized in 1989, Lathrop-Manteca Fire gained some of the areas west of the freeway which were detached from the Tracy Rural Fire District. More geographical areas came under its jurisdiction with the subsequent annexations of the River Islands development area, then known as  Gold Rush, and the Central Lathrop Specific  Plan area where Richland Communities was going to be the master developer but has since “tanked,” as Gatto described it.