Does Lathrop — a city of 25,000 — need two 100-foot aerial fire trucks that are now running in excess of $1.1 million apiece?
Lathrop Manteca Fire Chief Gene Neely thinks so. Neely is looking into pursuing a good deal on a used aerial truck to serve as a backup.
Neely without a doubt is an aggressive and assertive fire chief that takes his job seriously. That doesn’t mean his initiatives should get a pass especially given his bosses — the Lathrop Manteca Fire District board — in reality have no control over the source of a large chunk of funds for what may be called Neely’s spending spree of late that includes moving toward having paramedics on fire engines
That’s because the City of Lathrop tosses the fire district a life preserver of sorts by giving them 40 percent of the voter-approved 1 percent general city sales tax to augment fire services. This year that will come to about $1.9 million from the Measure C sales tax. That’s about a fifth of the district’s $11.1 million general fund budget. It doesn’t matter if the money the city sends to the district is “committed” to specific expenditures. That means the $1.9 million the city sends the district frees up other money the district can use for other purposes.
The fire board, without a doubt, is composed of fine and upstanding individuals. There is little doubt about Neely’s credentials. Both the fire board and the fire chief are focused 100 percent on providing the best fire service, medical response, and emergency services for the people within their district. A city, on the other hand, has to balance what they spend on fire against other needs such as police, parks, streets, and general government.
Given the overwhelming chunk of fire district revenue comes from City of Lathrop residents and businesses, the money to run the city and fire district are coming from the pockets of the same taxpayers. And because the money is watched by one governing board that is pressed with a wide array of needs and wants city residents expect and the other governing board just one in the form of fire and emergency services, there is no holistic approach taken to spending limited tax dollars as well as projecting down-the-road expenses. Those future expenses run the gamut from pension costs to increased insurance and fixed costs related to running a parallel paramedic service to the Manteca District Ambulance.
The issue of the district’s 65-foot aerial truck aside, Lathrop Manteca Fire District does have a backup 100-foot aerial truck. It’s parked in the City of Manteca. And in a worst case scenario there are backup aerial trucks in Stockton, Tracy, and Ripon.
Back two years ago when Manteca had the massive fire at the apartment complex under construction along the 120 Bypass, they relied on backup aerial trucks from other jurisdictions. You could make an argument Manteca — a city with 85,000 residents and what will be the tallest occupied structure at 6-stories that could have as many as 4,000 people in it when the Great Wolf resort opens — needs a second 100-foot aerial truck as well.
But would it be the wisest use if tax funds? Those living in the City of Lathrop don’t have a council that is empowered not just to ask such a question but to determine whether money should be spent in such a manner.
And the taxpayers getting gouged the hardest with the proverbial fork are those buying newer homes and building the latest distribution centers that are mandated to have the latest fire suppression systems. In the case of new home buyers they are paying between $2,000 and $3,000 that is collapsed into the sales price of their homes for mandated fire sprinkler systems. Does such equipment justify ramping up fire district equipment spending that isn’t proportional?
Remember we are talking every 5 to 15 years for a city that ultimately will be perhaps 60,000 to 80,000 tops in population having a fire district with two $1.1 million aerial ladder trucks in today’s dollars to replace.
Be assured the aerial fire trucks will not be needed in the rural Manteca portion of the fire district meaning the two aerial trucks are being justified for a city that ultimately won’t be as large as Manteca is today with 85,000 people and one aerial fire truck.
What makes more sense for both Manteca and Lathrop is for the City of Manteca to shift their aerial fire truck back to the Union Road fire station once the nearby interchange work is competed in 2021.
Not only would the aerial fire truck by better situated midway between Manteca’s largest structures — Spreckels Park in the east and the Airport Way corridor bookended by Great Wolf and 5.11 Tactical in the west — but it would have quick freeway access to reach points in Lathrop.
If Neely, who was paid $280,000 ($425,900 if you include benefits) in 2018 wants to assure efficient and effective fire service for Lathrop and by extension Manteca, he’d focus his energies on some type of consolidation of agencies or — at the very least — ramped up cooperative strategies involving things such as where aerial trucks are garaged for maximum public safety benefit.
Given a South County fire service that could include Lathrop, Manteca, Tracy and Ripon in the past has proven to be too political to swallow, Neely could pursue an intermediate step. It could involve simply creating “fire districts” under the control of the respective city councils of Lathrop and Manteca with everything west of the railroad tracks separating the two cities being under Lathrop’s umbrella and everything west under Manteca’s.
It might surprise Lathrop city taxpayers to know how often fire trucks from the Lathrop Manteca Fire District are the first to respond to fires within the City of Manteca.
Not only are they helping subsidize future inflated retirement payments for Neely given $127,000 of his pay in 2018 reimbursed by the state for wildfire commands creates a local liability that could last for years for the fire chief’s enhanced retirement, but they are helping pay for primary fire service for people in Manteca.