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Lathrop-Manteca hiring 9 firefighters for 2 years via grant
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LATHROP – The Lathrop-Manteca Fire District is finally getting some much-needed front-line staffing relief.

Chief Gene Neely has received word that the district is being awarded the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant – also known as SAFER – which will allow for the hiring of nine additional firefighters to help the cash-strapped department.

But there’s one big catch.

The money will only last for two years.

With property tax revenue continuing to fall – which accounts for roughly 60 percent of the district’s operating budget – Neely knows that a solid source of income has to be generated in order to maintain adequate staffing levels required for proper fire protection.

The handshake agreement between the district’s board of directors and the Lathrop City Council, he said, over the proposed one-cent sales tax increase that will be on the ballot in November could generate as much as $800,000 a year depending on overall revenue and how the revenue is split.

An independent citizen’s oversight committee would be responsible for determining how and when the district’s portion of the tax receipts – if the measure passes – are to be spent.

“Things are still tight right now and I don’t see the economy getting stronger anytime in the near future,” Neely said. “Right now we’re working to stabilize but we’re also trying to look down the road at future monies.”

Just two weeks ago the San Joaquin County Assessor’s Office released property tax statistics for the last fiscal year which showed that Lathrop’s average value dropped by 2.3 percent – something that cost the City of Lathrop $64,000 and cut even deeper into the nearly-empty pockets of the district.

While the addition of the nine firefighters being funded by the grant will help to increase the staffing levels to where they should be – allowing for crews of three to respond to calls within the community – it could also prove to be a bittersweet experiment if the funding to cover the cost isn’t secured before time runs out.

And that means making a push for the one-cent sales tax.

Since the district has a financial stake neither Neely nor any other staff member can officially lobby on behalf of the district. But independent groups operating outside of the scope of the district’s operation – like the local firefighters union – can campaign for the ballot measure.  

With public safety listed as one of the City Council’s current focal points, Neely says that discussions about how much of the pie the district would get haven’t formally been hammered out because of the nature of the tax.

If the funding generated by the tax were to be set aside for a special use – similar to what Manteca did with Measure M to enhance police and fire protection – a two-thirds majority would be needed to pass instead of the simple majority that’ll be called for in November.

In the meantime Neely is still using reserve firefighters to staff the rural station on Union Road. The district also receives support from Tracy Rural when grass fires and vehicle accidents occur in the South County.

And on top of all of that he’s preparing the paperwork for an ISO review for insurance that will eventually determine the rates that Lathrop residents end up paying for fire protection on their homes. It is something that could be in jeopardy without a lack of steady revenue.

“We’re working on some things right now but times are tight,” he said. “It’s going to be something that affects a lot of people (the ISO review) and we’re pretty confident that we can hold the line with where we were at before.

“We might take a hit in some of the rural areas.”