It’s time to sound the alarm and for elected leaders to respond with a proactive plan before fire protection and other emergency medical responses in the Lathrop-Manteca-Ripon-French Camp area becomes convoluted, more expensive than need be, and possibly put property and lives at risk.
Ripon Consolidated Fire District clearly has a staffing issue as full-time personnel are not manning their newest fire station on River Road within the Ripon city limits. Sooner or later, not having full staffing at that station will lead to tragic consequences. After voters rejected a parcel tax, both the Ripon City Council and the Fire District have a moral obligation to pursue funding whether it is a sales tax increase within the city with the same arrangement the City of Lathrop has with Lathrop-Manteca Fire District to fund needed personnel or trying a different version of the parcel tax that failed last year. Fire Chief Dennis Bitters is not blowing smoke when he argues that the station needs full-time staffing not just to maintain the level of fire service but also so continued growth doesn’t deteriorate fire and emergency medical services districtwide.
Growth patterns and growing costs have created slightly different issues for Lathrop-Manteca, City of Manteca, and French Camp.
Manteca — along with the San Joaquin River south of the Interstate 5 crossing — cuts Lathrop-Manteca into two unequal halves. The one to the west of the north-south Union Pacific main line is rapidly closing in on 30,000 residents, has a fast growing distribution center/industrial base, and very little farming left. The other half would be hard pressed to count 3,000 residents. It is primarily farming and country estates with Manteca slowly eating into the Lathrop-Manteca territory to the north, to the east, and to the south of the city.
There are two fire stations in the “weaker” half of Lathrop-Manteca — one at Austin and Lathrop roads and one on Union Road south of Nile Garden Road. Under an agreement between the city and fire district, the closest engine to a fire or a medical emergency is automatically dispatched. The majority of the calls out of the two districts stations are into the City of Manteca. Nothing disparaging meant by the observation but the staging levels with full-time personnel at the two stations in question aren’t on the same level as Lathrop-Manteca stations elsewhere or City of Manteca stations. Not inferring that anyone has suffered because of it, but it is only a matter of time before something happens.
And if you are lving in one of the 1,500 homes in Manteca’s Griffin Park that will break ground in a year or so and you live closer to the southern part of the development and you receive a less robust initial response that is not up to the same manpower as if you lived in the northern part of the same project even though you pay the same city taxes, not only will you feel like a stepchild being shortchanged but you may suffer from a less intense initial response.
Meanwhile City of Lathrop growth is encroaching on French Camp Fire District.
The current boundaries made sense 40 years and 70,000 or so people ago. The South County is no longer dominated by agriculture surrounding towns. Agriculture is still big and arguably more intense than it was 40 years ago, but by 2030 a Manteca is likely to have close to 110,000 residents, Lathrop close to 50,000, and Ripon more than 20,000 plus intense travel corridors as well as growing distribution/industrial base will present more expensive challenges.
Go back 40 or 50 years and Lathrop-Manteca had more people they were protecting in the Manteca area. That’s why it originally was founded as the Manteca-Lathrop Rural Fire District.
The Lathrop Manteca territory north of Manteca to French Camp Road, east of Highway 99 and north of Graves Road, and south to the Stanislaus River should be part of a fire service area that is modeled somewhat after the City of Tracy and Tracy Rural merger by being added to the City of Manteca’s fire service coverage. The rural areas would have a say plus would pay into a Manteca City Fire District.
The area south of Graves Road should go into Ripon Consolidated given it also falls under the sphere of influence for future City of Ripon growth.
Lathrop-Manteca along with the City of Lathrop, and French Camp Fire should also merge under a model similar to how Tracy did.
It’s not an absolute perfect realignment but it’s the easiest to make work while taking into account major physical obstacles and financial concerns.
A quarter of a century ago the push was to put everyone — Tracy, Tracy Rural, Manteca, Ripon, and French Camp into one super fire agency. While such a move might indeed still have more pros than cons from the perspective of the seamless delivery of services, the aforementioned marries fire service to distinct geo-political areas that will continue to make sense as development continues for the next 50 years or so with the exception perhaps down-the-road of the future southeast portion of the City of Manteca that — based on the sphere of influence for logical urbanization — will encroach on a small part of Ripon Consolidated Fire.
The simplest way to go forward would be to transfer existing taxes to whatever fire agency gets additional territory to cover. The debt tied to those areas based on actual equipment and building costs for stations that serve the area being transferred such as the “weaker” half of Lathrop Manteca would go to the fire agency that would protect the area going forward.
Of the four entities, the City of Manteca financially has the least to gain but arguably the most to gain in better service and future growth considerations.
Lathrop — with French Camp under their wing and the bulk of the current “weaker half” moved to Manteca — would be better positioned to have its stations west of the UP railroad and in French Camp on the same footing for manpower.
If everyone were honest, urban districts unless they have a right-sized parcel tax with an inflation factor attached as their means of basic support wedded with property tax fare much better when they have a mix of property tax and sales tax to underwrite operational costs.
The biggest roadblock might just be the fear of letting go of “identity” as much as it might be those who may equate more territory to more glory.
But what should develop everyone — elected leaders, fire service professionals, taxpayers, and those who may be in need one day of an emergency response — is the most effective fire service possible. That means making sure they are financially viable and aren’t challenged by boundaries that make service less cost effective or forces the cutting of corners.
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.