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It was a year of heroes, free fish & budget blues
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LATHROP – From truckloads of salmon to feed the seniors to famous favorite sons coming back to their old stomping grounds, 2011 was an event-packed year for Lathrop and its residents.

Here are a few snippets about big happenings around town over the last 12 months:

• A basketball legend comes home
– Not even the NBA draft could keep native son and current Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks from coming back to his roots to have the gym he used to frequent named in his honor. Just 24 hours prior the former East Union standout was back in the war room in Oklahoma City helping the organization prepare for arguably the most important basketball event of the year. He returned to not only be on hand for the dedication but also host the Manteca Unified School District Basketball Camp – showing off the dribbling skills and shooting touch he developed over an 11-year NBA career that include a championship with the Houston Rockets.

Lathrop Lion Arnita Montiel played a pivotal role in putting the entire event together. She would later be the driving force behind naming the stadium at Lathrop High School after the local football star turned Cleveland Brown and eventual Stanford and Kansas City Chiefs head football coach. The Manteca Unified School Board eventually decided to name the facility Bennie Gatto Field at Paul Wiggin Stadium – Home of the Spartans.

• Budget blues leaves jobs on the line – The unveiling of the 2011/12 budget for the City of Lathrop showed that despite the odds the city is in relatively healthy financial shape.

But in order to keep it that way they were going to have to cut five jobs – preventing the need to dip into the $7.2 million in reserves that the city has maintained.

After a series of budget workshops and a tense council meeting where general planner Charlie Mullen and IT analyst Claudia Munson-Shaw pleaded for their employment, the council voted 3-2 – with Mayor Joseph “Chaka” Santos and Vice Mayor Christopher Mateo dissenting – to use $273,000 in reserves to keep four of the five jobs that were to be cut. Economic Development Director Steve Carrigan – whom the city brought in to generate revenue by attracting business to the community – was ultimately let go. He had been working as a consultant and was slated to be brought on to staff full-time prior to the decision.

• Fire district gets burned at the ballot box – First there were the plummeting home values that sent up a smoke signal.

Then the Lathrop-Manteca Fire District got dealt a brutal blow when the San Joaquin County tax assessor’s report cut the amount of money they were expecting to receive from commercial and residential property tax even further. 

The one-two punch left the district without reserves and without any other options other than to go hat-in-hand to the voters of the district and ask for a small property-tax increase that would have generated just over $1 million annually for the cash-strapped organization. Four firefighters were laid off at the start of the fiscal year because of the budget situation, and the only way to bring back staffing levels to where they needed to be, leaders said, was to get the special parcel tax approved.

But it failed miserably.

Without the necessary funding or staffing at his disposal to operate the four stations that protect the 100-square-mile district, Fire Chief Gene Neely had to temporarily shutter the rural station on Union Road until a reserve system could be instituted that would allow units to respond to calls in that area. He called in favors with Manteca, Ripon and Tracy to make sure that everything was covered, and called in the help from retired battalion chiefs to help free him up to work on the issues.

Two of the four firefighters that were laid off have been rehired due to attrition.