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Lathrop Manteca finds ways to handle staffing challenge
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LATHROP – Six months ago things weren’t going very well for Lathrop-Manteca Fire District Chief Gene Neely.

He had the layoffs of four firefighters hanging over his head, while a property-tax assessment that would have put an extra $1 million annually into the district’s coffers was voted down by a wide margin.

But a blend of the innovative use of reserves and the non-stop search for new revenue streams, Neely says, has created at least a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel. Things are still bad, according to Neely, but signs are pointing towards them improving.

“Right now we’re staying afloat and I think that we’re headed in the right direction,” he said. “We’re trying and I think we have some good things going.”

On the administrative side, Neely is in discussions with the City of Lathrop about a variety of scenarios that would provide a much-needed influx of funding to the district’s bare-bones budget that was crushed by the reassessment of property values in Lathrop. He’s also looking for grants that could help fund more full-time positions to replace the four that lost when the fiscal year calendar rolled over in July.

He’s currently eyeing the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant – known as the SAFER grant and handed out by the Federal Emergency Management Association.

If awarded, the four positions that were slashed would be added back to the roster and funded for two years as long as the district would be able to pay for them for a third and not lay off anybody in between. Neely said that it’s an option that will take careful studying and financial analysis to determine whether it’s feasible.

The other big push right now, he said, is getting the 20-plus reserves that were recently hired familiar with the operations of Station 32. The district is staffing the station with the reserves from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in order to provide protection to the area without slicing into the budget.

Additional training is needed to outfit the reserves with all of the tools that they’ll need to be completely independent. Currently a battalion firefighter mans the station from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. The “tools” needed includes driving courses and on-the-job work to learn how to operate an engine.

But it’s something that’s coming along, according to Neely, and serves as a much better option in terms of serving the public than browning out the station that was initially discussed.

“We’re working things out right now, but it’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “We’re happy with the progress we’ve made so far, and we’ll get there soon.”