The oldest engine in the Manteca Fire Department fleet is an American La France, the first fire engine ever to be bought new.
The 1927 engine spends most of the time on loan to the Manteca Museum when it’s not part of a parade. Obviously it doesn’t respond to emergencies anymore but its backstory and why the community rallied to make sure the department could buy it is a lesson that today’s elected Manteca leaders need to take to heart.
Several devastating fires where the response of firefighters was hampered by inadequate equipment prompted the “rapidly growing” city of 1,500 in 1927 to order the $10,500 engine that had a 600-gallon per minute capacity. Its impact was immediately felt as fires became less devastating.
Then in June 1934 when the department was unable to make the final payment of $275.72 on the LaFrance engine, the community — realizing how devastating the loss of the fire engine would be — conducted dances, bake sakes, and door-to-door solicitations to cover the final payment.
Now some 85 years later Manteca elected leaders must address a pressing fire fighting equipment issue that isn’t any less perilous than what their counterparts back in the middle of the Great Depression faced.
The city has four frontline fire engines and four backup fire engines. Two of the frontline engines are 12 years old with one that has logged 114,710 miles. The second would have as much mileage but the engine was rebuilt after it was struck by a car. The rebuilt engine has 43,870 miles. Aging engines require more time in the shop for mechanical issues that have even included the onboard tank’s inability to hold water. That has required the department to fall back on engines that first went into service between 1989 and 2003 that have between 130,280 miles and 194,335 miles.
Keep in mind the life of your loved ones and your home may well depend upon the reliability of these engines.
The upcoming budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 scratched a department request for a $600,000 replacement engine as the city seeks to avoid the slippery slope of structured deficits where you spend more money in a given year than you take in but then rely on drawing down reserves to balance a spending plan.
This does not include the need in a year or so for a $600,000 engine for the fifth fire station that construction work is starting on this month at Atherton Drive and Woodward Avenue. While the station will initially open with a two-man rescue squad eventually a three-man engine crew will need to be in place. The city’s fire facility fee has been depleted and then some to cover the $4.5 million tab to build the station. The council, on staff’s advice, dipped into “development agreement fees” to cover the balance and repaying the amount with interest as fire facilities fees are collected on new growth.
It is a fiscally sound borrowing practice that follows prudent municipal financial policies with one glaring exception — the development agreement fees also known as bonus bucks are not your typical growth fees. They were collected in exchange for sewer allocation certainty for subdivisions with no strings attached on how they are spent. In other words there is no spending plan adopted that was the justification for assessing the fees.
The fees were originally adopted with the much ballyhooed promise that it would allow the city to put in place amenities that they otherwise would not be able to provide for existing and new residents. That wasn’t exactly reality. The city used $11.9 million in bonus bucks — or more than a third collected — to prop up wages and positions that were essentially beyond the city’s means. For nearly a decade the bonus bucks allowed previous city councils to sidestep what would have been painful decisions to bring municipal spending in line with current revenues. It also allowed them to not act in a timely manner to update growth fees collected for a specific purpose such as fire facilities.
In fact more than 40 percent of the cost of building today’s headquarters station on Union Road was covered by development agreement fees or bonus bucks without employing the city’s inter-fund borrowing policy that required it to be repaid with interest. That’s because of the unique nature of bonus bucks not being tied to specific spending plans and language in development agreements that allows the council to spend the funds as they see fit.
Councilman David Breitenbucher understands how bonus bucks got the department out of a fix of not keeping up with growth as he was a firefighter at the time the Union Road station was built.
Dipping into the bonus bucks to get the Atherton-Woodward station build was a prudent move given that building now instead of when the city had all of the money in hand collected from growth to pay for it saved an estimated $1.7 million.
What doesn’t make sense is encumbering the fire facilities fee to pay back the $1.7 million that diverts money needed for critical equipment.
Staff was simply following established policy for fees collected on growth without realizing the exception carved out for development agreement fees due to their unique status of not being tied to spending plans and being collected on the premise they can be spent as the council sees fit. The council, perhaps led by Breitenbucher who knows all too well the risks of not having adequate equipment when lives and property are on the line, needs to negate the payback and instead direct the money that flows in from bonus bucks to the fire facilities fees for the next $1.8 million worth to buy three fire engines — a replacement engine, and engine for the new fire station now be built and an engine that will allow the aerial truck to not roll on every call. That aerial truck that cost $990,000 with the replacement cost now pushing $1.3 million needs to have its useful life prolonged as much as possible.
In an ironic twist $2 million is about what the city will be collecting in bonus bucks from two Atherton Homes neighborhoods being built less than a half mile from the new station. Atherton is the last developer to agree to pay the unrestricted bonus bucks.
The move would take pressure off the general fund to replace two fire engines in the coming five or so years to give the city maneuvering room.
The move as outlined is legal, it doesn’t violate rules regarding how the money can be spent, it is fiscally prudent in multiple ways, allows the city to play catch-up with bonus bucks as they did when they built the Union Road fire station, and addresses a critical public safety need that could easily effect anyone of Manteca’s 83,750 residents.
To not pull the plug on the payback and let fire fees collected go to fire engines would be the bad fiscal move as well as bad for public safety.
Breitenbucher for the better part of two decades faithfully answered the call as a firefighter to protect the public. Now as a council member we need him to answer the call once again to make sure the public stays protected as effectively as possible and undo what is an unnecessary repayment of bonus bucks.
Lives and property may well depend upon Breitenbucher’s ability to convince his council colleagues to do what is not just best for Manteca but is also fiscally prudent.
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.