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Measure M mismanagement?
Fire leader says so, city manager says it isnt so
Manteca firefighters battle a downtown store fire. - photo by Bulletin file photo

Measure M – the half cent public safety sales tax passed by voters – is being mismanaged according to the president of the Manteca Firefighters Association.

Franco Torrice told the Manteca City Council Tuesday night that the association contends Measure M funding is supplanting and not supplementing general fund support of public safety. It is a point city leaders adamantly dispute.

Torrice made his comments after more than a dozen speakers addressed the council asking them to rescind layoff notices for six firefighters that go into effect July 1.

Other major points to come up on Tuesday from speakers and the city staff:

• The city has obtained a $300,000 grant to help pay for firefighter salaries over five years but has to guarantee they can maintain current staffing levels to keep the money. They are seeking a hardship waiver from the federal government. The grant would be enough to pay $60,000 a year for five years toward one firefighter position that can cost between $110,000 and $150,000 once all payroll costs are factored into the equation.

.• Del Webb at Woodbridge residents are concerned they are being shortchanged given they contend they pay the highest property taxes of all neighborhoods in Manteca as their homes sell for more than $60 per square foot higher than the city average plus they pay more sales tax due to a larger disposal income. The 700 Del Webb homes are among 2,500 in northwest Manteca outside of the targeted five-minute response time for fire personnel.

• Even with the pending 16 municipal workers layoffs – including six firefighters – the city still has to cut expenses $2.5 million by July 1 in order to balance the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Pinkerton has indicated that the remaining cuts will have to come from reducing employee compensation.

Most of the speakers understood the city has hard choices to make but urged them to take another look and see if there was a way they could make police and fire a bigger priority.

Torrice, in asking for the council to reconsider the layoffs, noted that the council gave a second look to the plan to build Big League Dreams at Woodward Park came up with a much better option to locate it where it is today.

But what clearly was on the mind of speakers were concerns over the possibility that six less firefighters which will require the idling of one of the city’s four engine companies per shift would have a detrimental impact on public safety.

“To seniors, firefighters have become a matter of life or death,” said JoAnn Jamerson who resides in a Manteca retirement community.

City Manager Steve Pinkerton after the meeting flatly denied the mismanagement charge. Public budget documents show the unrestricted revenue the general fund support of public safety is 62.2 cents of every dollar spent or almost exactly what it was when Measure M passed. Pinkerton has indicated shrinking revenue would likely send public safety share of the general fund pie past the 70 percent mark in the fiscal year starting in 22 days.

Torrice pointed to language in Measure M that states the money must be used to supplement the general fund.

The city accounts for Measure M revenues separately and tracks the money to pay for 11 police officers and 12 firefighters. The positions being eliminated are from the general fund. The six firefighters receiving layoff notices were all hired under Measure M. But when the general fund shrunk and firefighting positions were cut, the firefighters with seniority in essence “bumped” the recently hired Measure M firefighters as their positions will be funded with the public safety tax next fiscal year.

The Measure M sales tax currently generates $4.1 million a year to pay the salaries and benefits of 11 police officers as well as $3.2 million for the benefits and salaries of 12 firefighters.

At the same time a federal grant that allowed Manteca to hire back four of the original 16 police officers that the city had to lay off over two years ago due to budget constraints runs out in 2012. That grant requires the four positions to be kept by the city.

Manteca plans to collapse the salaries and benefits of those four officers into the Measure M funding. That would bring Measure M funded police officers to 15 while the number of firefighting positions funded using Measure M would drop to six next year.

The original plan when Measure M was passed was to have 15 police officers and 15 firefighters paid for with Measure M receipts by June 2010. The recession, however, slammed retail sales and slowed revenue. And while current year tax receipts are running 7 percent ahead of last fiscal year’s they are still below the original projections outlined in the Measure M plan.

Public Safety Sales tax Oversight Committee Chairman Rich Silverman – who is also a staunch supporter of the firefighters and has suggested starting a campaign to raise $600,000 or so to avoid layoffs - told the council last month after they received their annual report on the half cent sales tax that “Measure M is doing what it is supposed to do.”

Other citizens on the committee are Marion Elliott, Mike Morwit, Jamerson, and Dave Thompson.

Nothing in that report from the five citizen appointees alluded to Measure M being mismanaged.