It’s time to take “Manteca” out of the Lathrop Manteca Fire District.
Lathrop Manteca Fire Chief Gene Neely has a very valid point that the way we are going about delivering fire service in the South County is balkanized and can be done better.
That’s why the first step should be for his district to approach the San Joaquin County Local Agency Formation Commission about de-annexing the rural areas of his district that are south, east and west of Manteca. Those areas should come under the wings of the City of Manteca Fire Department via the creation of a fire board much like that exists for the combined fire service that once was operated independently by the City of Tracy and Tracy Rural.
At the same time the “new” Lathrop Fire District with the City of Lathrop should form a similar board to govern the Lathrop city and rural areas as well. In doing so, city sales tax support of fire service in Lathrop can move beyond just a gentlemen’s agreement and be on solid footing.
As it stands now, the Nile Garden and New Haven areas, Oakwood Shores, and Raymus Village in rural Manteca are cut off to a large degree from the bulk of the Lathrop Manteca Fire District in the City of Lathrop that includes the rapidly growing River Islands at Lathrop.
Such a move would eliminate a concern of Neely’s that Manteca’s urbanization causing land in Lathrop Manteca Fire District’s domain to be switched over to the City of Manteca crimps their financial ability to continue providing service in rural Manteca.
This way that problem is eliminated and rural Manteca residents won’t fall in the afterthought category during a budget crunch period as happened during the Great Recession when the two stations in rural Manteca bore the brunt of Lathrop Manteca Fire District manpower cutbacks.
And while it may appear the City of Manteca is taking on an additional burden in proportion to property tax receipts that would flow from rural Manteca to pay for fire services, the opposite is actually the case. Automatic response aside for a second, such an arrangement would allow the City of Manteca to include the existing rural Union Road and rural Lathrop Road fire stations in future coverage decisions as the city grows.
When Manteca stops expanding into farmland into the south or to the east, when ultimate city limits are reached the ability of the two rural stations tied to Lathrop Manteca Fire District would be in serious doubt.
It also would eliminate the need to end up having two stations on top of each other to serve future development — the existing ones in rural Manteca and new ones in the city.
What could happen is the existing locations could be expanded by the city or a new station ultimately built in a different location to better serve everyone.
The two fire agencies have an admirable and effective automatic response in place where the closest engine is disputed regardless of which jurisdiction a fire or a medical emergency is in.
By replicating the Tracy city-rural model in Manteca it will avoid creating situations where future leaders in budget crunches may question the validity of the arrangement and not charging especially if it becomes lopsided in favor of one district over another.
Manteca already has stepped up its “rural” fire game after a large swath of agricultural land was annexed in recent years by purchasing of a fire engine designed to attack grass fires and structural blazes far from fire hydrants.
By creating a Lathrop city-rural fire agency, Lathrop residents will have more say in the level of fire service they receive. That is nothing against the existing Lathrop Manteca Fire Board. It’s just that the taxing powers of cities go beyond a fire district and opens up more options.
The Tracy model works because it keeps urban fire service levels intact, allows smarter and more efficient planning and expenditures to accommodate growth, and doesn’t deny the reality that as Tracy grows the financial squeeze on Tracy Rural will increase. That is exactly where Lathrop Manteca Fire District is headed in rural Manteca.
It means eventually one of two things will happen. Property owners in Lathrop as well as the City of Lathrop via sales tax will be subsidizing service in rural Manteca or else rural Manteca will see a cutback in service.
Of course, as it stands now, the City of Manteca would pick up the slack as long as no one questions the fairness of the automatic aid.
To make things work, Lathrop Manteca Fire District would transfer the two stations to the hybrid Manteca fire agency that would have a board controlled by city appointed trustees as well as from the rural area. Equipment at the two stations would be transferred as well including any balance owed on fire engines.
The existing full-time staffing would be absorbed into the Manteca department.
At the same time all property tax in rural Manteca would stop flowing to Lathrop Manteca Fire District and instead go to help fund the Manteca fire agency.
It wasn’t that long ago Lathrop Manteca Fire District changed its name from Manteca Lathrop Rural Fire District to reflect reality.
It’s time once again to reflect reality and create separate fire agency umbrellas in the Manteca and Lathrop areas to include city and rural coverage in both communities.
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.