Call 9-1-1 when a loved one is having a heart attack or your home is on fire you don’t really care what name is on the fire truck that responds as long as it arrives quickly. That’s life and death reality.
But how much the service costs you and who controls it — questions pondered light years away from an emergency — are political questions the fire service must have answered.
And in today’s world where debates are often driven by social media hysteria, politics outweigh reality.
Some have equated Lathrop Manteca Fire Chief Gene Neely’s not-out-of-the-blue call for essentially a forced merger of French Camp McKinley Fire District with his agency a move Napoleon would have been proud to execute.
Thanks to his timing in a dispute over territory with French Camp McKinley it does give fuel to those who claim it is empire building. Neely in a way is doing an injustice to his own cause — assuming that he is sincere.
Setting aside the Flying J Travel Plaza flare-up for a second, is there a need to consolidate fire districts from the Stockton city limits to the Stanislaus River as some contend is inevitable? That would involve merging Ripon Consolidated Fire District, the City of Manteca, Lathrop Manteca Fire District and French Camp McKinley Fire District an even ultimately combine with Tracy Fire that’s a joint endeavor of Tracy Rural and the City of Tracy.
This actually was envisioned back in the early 1990s — minus Ripon and French Camp. Tracy’s merger has more to do with local growth dynamics unique to Tracy.
If response times aren’t acceptable — as the theory goes under the logic of the infamous San Joaquin County Local Agency Formation Commission report — the panacea is consolidation. But comparing Manteca with Collegeville or Ripon is a bit disingenuous. People in urban areas should expect faster response times because they are paying for it. While better response times are critical you can’t expect Collegeville in a sparsely populated area with many more square miles of coverage to match a city department.
Putting firehouse politics aside, just how ineffective are the men and women of French Camp McKinley Fire Department that a hostile takeover is justified? It would seem French Camp regardless of perceived and real slights that may exist at the top is competent enough to oversee Mountain House fire service as well as provide coverage for facilities that have critical countywide impact such as San Joaquin General Hospital. Why did Mountain House partner with French Camp-McKinley and not Lathrop Manteca?
There is also the question of what consolidation provides that’s better than the automatic response that Neely helped craft between the City of Manteca and Lathrop Manteca Fire where the closest engine to a call is dispatched regardless of the department.
Consolidation at best eliminates a fire chief position. But if you look at department salaries merging smaller agencies with larger ones would more than wipeout savings given the bump in salaries and even benefits that would have to be paid firefighters that are being absorbed.
The question for non-city departments that cover urban areas such as Ripon Consolidated and Lathrop Manteca is how do they pay for urban level of coverage? Ripon is wrestling with that right now. Lathrop Manteca has semi-resolved it by relying on a gentleman’s agreement with the City of Lathrop that gives them a large share of that city’s one cent sales tax override. That is likely the best solution for Ripon.
Besides the fact the fire district technically has its hands out given they aren’t the entity generating the sales tax, what assurances would Lathrop taxpayers have that they wouldn’t be subsidizing stepped up service in the French Camp area should a merger take place?
That said, it makes sense to periodically examine how you are conducting your business to make sure there isn’t a way to do it more effectively and cost-effective just as Lathrop has discovered with its police services contract.
In that context reorganizing as opposed to consolidation may make more sense. With Manteca growing to the south, a case could be made that the Lathrop Manteca Fire station on South Union Road past Nile Garden School and the Lathrop Road station and associated apparatus near Austin Road and the territory they cover along with property tax receipts should come under the umbrella of the City of Manteca Fire Department. That would seem justified based on arguments that Neely makes every time Manteca annexes and he extracts a 10 year property tax buyout for land his department will no longer provide primary protection.
With all due respect to Lathrop Manteca Fire and Neely, they aren’t in the same ideal situation as the City of Manteca Fire Department. While there is no doubt they match up professionally, Neely’s department would be able to serve the City of Lathrop more cost-effective if its primary concern was just the City of Lathrop.
The reality that all rural as well as hybrid departments such as Lathrop Manteca and Ripon are a little bit weaker cousins when it comes to coverage and response times in the rural and sometimes urban segments of their districts is what was the driving force behind the LAFCo call for consolidation.
Given the political hurdles it might make more sense to replicate the Tracy model or redraw existing fire service boundaries to reflect the realities of development.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.