The Lathrop-Manteca Fire Department got burned at the ballot box.
After a month of informational meetings to try and explain the property tax increase that the fire district was proposing, the voters overwhelmingly turned down the assessment increase Thursday night.
Preliminary count numbers, according to Fire Chief Gene Neely, were 380,000 against the increase versus 48,000 that were for the assessment. The votes were weighted based on how much a particular property owner had in terms of land and improvements.
The district spent $60,000 to conduct the special election as legally allowed under California Proposition 218. They are now facing a dire financial situation that could require the “browning out” or temporary closures of the two rural Manteca fire stations in order to cut costs. The measure would have generated about$1 million a year had it passed.
The assessment didn’t equate to a tremendous amount of money for regular homeowners. It was roughly $49 annually for a 2,300 square-foot home. Some believe it was the large commercial, industrial and agricultural companies that have thousands of parcels that sunk the measure.
Fire Board Director Bill Mahaffie said firefighters walked neighborhoods to try and drum up support among local residents. They thought that residential support would likely be positive given the implications.
But, Mahaffie said, big industry “failed this thing.”
“Where I live in the country we only had 70 votes,” he said. “That wasn’t the case with some of the big businesses that we have here with the square footage they have and all of their taxable area and parcels.
“It brings up some hard decisions, and it’s really disappointing right now,” Mahaffie added,
To date four fire battalion chiefs have retired from the Lathrop-Manteca Fire District and their positions have not been refilled.
Earlier this month four firefighter positions were eliminated because of budget constraints. They would have immediately been rehired if the measure had passed Thursday night.
During the counting, fire personnel – including at least two of the firefighters that had been laid off – held an almost vigil-like presence outside of the fire station on River Islands Parkway to see which how the voting was going to turn out.
A brief Fire Board meeting was held and normal business was conducted, but the majority of the focus was outside in the office portion of the station house where staffers of the Stockton-based civil engineering firm opened envelopes, pulled the ballots and separated them into yes and no piles.
Each ballot’s barcode – which tabulated the assessed value of the property and logged it into a computer program – was then scanned and added to the total.
With the failure of the measure, minimal staffing levels of a captain and a firefighter or engineer at each of the district’s four stations will continue until additional revenue sources are attained.
The district has taken a major hit over the course of the last five years with property values plummeting in and around the Lathrop area. The district only collects 10 percent of 1 percent of the value of the property, and has seen values fall as much as 60 percent during that timeframe.