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Sounding the alarm: Citizens want consolidation of fire services
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Marty Harris doesn’t believe it matters much what the name is on the fire engine that arrives at someone’s house in the case of a fire or medical emergency.

“People just want help to arrive as quickly as possible,” the rural South Manteca resident and businessman noted.

It is the main reason that Harris and others are trying to bring the civic leaders in Manteca and Lathrop together along with the Lathrop-Manteca Fire Department to explore the possibility of consolidation. Harris said there is a growing concern that ongoing budget issues will impact the level of service in both the Lathrop-Manteca Fire District that serves 84.7 square miles including the City of Lathrop as well as the City of Manteca Fire Department.

Consolidation would create a new district responsible for fire and medical emergency coverage in the cities of Manteca, Lathrop and surrounding rural areas with a separately elected board. It could have five elected representatives with three from Manteca, one from Lathrop, and one from the rural areas based roughly on population divisions. As with the Manteca Unified School District, board members would reside in specific areas but voting would be district wide.

Manteca council members are open to discussions

It is a proposal that at least two Manteca council members - John Harris and Steve DeBrum - believe merits exploration as does Lathrop Manteca Fire District board member Manuel Medeiros.

“In these trying times we look at each and every thing possible that we can do to increase the efficiency of government,” DeBrum said.

And while DeBrum said he isn’t committing to Harris’ idea one way or another, he believes the information that could come from joint discussions between the two cities fire district and the community could come up with solutions that no one has thought about previously.

“We’re going to have to start looking at things differently,” John Harris said. “Things aren’t going to be going back to the way they were (in terms of government funding).”

Councilman Harris said it is important to have discussions to explain alternatives but added that any move that may be considered “should be made with extreme caution.”

A similar attempt in the mid-1990s to consolidate Lathrop, Manteca, and the rural areas under one fire district ended up going nowhere. Also on the table at the time was a “super” South County district involving what was then Manteca Lathrop Rural, City of Manteca, Tracy Rural and City of Tracy. The City of Tracy and Tracy Rural eventually consolidated.

The City of Lathrop doesn’t have its own fire department.

Since then, government funding has changed.

Marty Harris has quietly been circulating his proposal in letters and talks with local elected officials and other community members. It started well in advance of last week’s release of the municipal services review report on San Joaquin County’s 19 rural fire districts issued by the Local agency Formation Commission.

The report didn’t directly call for consolidation but indicated Lathrop-Manteca Fire District and the City of Manteca should consider “coordinating” the delivery of fire service. Besides consolidating into a new district it could be accomplished through a joint powers authority and other similar options.

The report also made it clear that when the 11,000-home River Islands at Lathrop project is well along to be finished that the Lathrop-Manteca Fire District could be in the strongest financial position of all rural fire districts in the county.

40% of calls from Lathrop station are to emergencies inside Manteca city limits

It is also clear that the financial health of one agency impacts the other in terms of quality of service. More than 40 percent of the emergencies the Lathrop-Manteca Fire engine stationed at the district’s East Lathrop Road station near Austin Road are service calls into the City of Manteca through their automatic aid agreement. That agreement entered into in 1984 has the closest engine dispatched to an incident regardless of boundaries.

District figures show that twice as many Lathrop Manteca fire engines roll to calls in the City of Manteca’s jurisdiction than City of Manteca engines roll into district territory on emergency calls.

In the past three years Manteca has been hit by budget cutbacks that have reduced staffing by parking the rescue squad or an engine company - primarily the second fire company consisting of the aerial platform truck - when sickness or vacations drop staffing levels per engine below the contract three firefighters per shift.

Manteca firefighters also forfeited pre-negotiated raises and made other compensation concessions two years ago to help the city bring spending in line with revenue. Manteca is currently looking at the need to trim $4.5 million more in expenses for the fiscal year starting July 1. Since 80-percent plus of the budget are salaries and benefits the city needs at least compensation concessions and possibly even layoffs to assure that they have a balanced budget the upcoming fiscal year.

Lathrop-Manteca was mulling a station closure – the one on South Union Road near Nile Garden School – last year due to budget issues. They were able to secure a $395,000 loan from the City of Lathrop to avoid closure.

The county report notes the district’s reserve is dangerously low with only a reserve balance of $14,576 for operating and capital outlays for unforeseen expenses given the overall budget is $4.7 million. That is about a third of one percent reserve.

A mid-year report shows more than half of the entire district’s overtime budget of $181,000 was already spent leaving just $54,000 for the final six months.

Among the reasons the LAFCO report cited to support coordinating City of Manteca and Lathrop-Manteca Fire Department operations included:

•The Lathrop-Manteca Fire District completely surrounds the City of Manteca.

•About 15 percent or 8,000 acres of the district is within Manteca’s sphere of influence or areas that LAFCO has determined are logical for eventual annexation to the city.

•Since 1990, the district’s service territory has decreased in size by about 5,800 acres due to annexations to the City of Manteca.

•The district has sustained significant losses in property tax and a reduction in staffing and service levels - seven firefighter positions are vacant - had to be made to balance the budget.

•Lathrop-Manteca Fire District experienced one of the largest decreases in property tax revenues among all of the county’s rural fire districts. In 2009. The district received 14 percent less through property taxes than it did in 2008. In 2010, it received 21 percent less than it did in 2009. It is estimated annexations to Manteca cost the district $313,529 annually in 2009 or 6 percent of the budget.

However, the report anticipates that future growth in the City of Lathrop, specifically the 11,000-home River Islands project, could make the district financially sound given it also collects a special assessment on property.