$32 fee on water passes

Aug 24th, 2012 | By | Category: Top Story

Justin Serpas, along with dozens of other St. Bernard residents have been voicing their thoughts on council’s decision to impose a $32 fee to water bills, from September to December 2012. Photo by Terri Sercovich


Starting September 1, a $32 monthly fee—dedicated strictly to the Fire Department— will be levied on each parish resident’s water bill, as voted unanimously by the St. Bernard Parish Council at their August 21 meeting.

Those who are 65 and older and whose income is $67,601 or less are exempt from the fees, which will stop for all residents on December 31, 2012, according to Councilchair Guy McInnis’ amendment which passed unanimously.

District A Councilman Ray Lauga also offered an amendment which calls for the monthly review of Sales Tax figures, in order to see if the length of the fee imposition could be shorter than four months. That amendment also passed unanimously.

The fee increase is to fund the fire department for the remainder of 2012, without having to make any layoffs. There will be an option on the December 8 ballot where voters can opt for a 20-mil increase to fund the Fire Department for 2013. District B Councilman and Chairman of the Executive Finance Committee Richie Lewis said that parish will get funds from the millage in November of 2013.

Lewis stressed that the council will be combing over the budget to find more non-personnel cuts during the upcoming budget hearings.

“I guarantee that more budget cuts will be made, just give us a chance to get to the budget hearings,” Lewis said.

The parish will hold budget hearings in October, where the head of the each parish department will present an itemized budget to the council and they can then take a more detailed look at what non-personnel items get cut and what stays.

Lewis also said that there are plans in the works to put an initiative on the December ballot that would call for a change in the Parish Charter, which would require all parish employees to live in St. Bernard Parish.

“That helps keep our money in St. Bernard Parish,” Lewis affirmed.

The council also unanimously passed a resolution that requests SBPG strictly enforce Chapter 17, Article I, Section 17-10 of the Code of Ordinances that is essentially a residency requirement for the fire department.

“It’s something we got away from after Katrina, understandably, but I’m asking the administration to strictly enforce this going forward,” Lewis explained.

At the August 14 Executive Finance Committee meeting, Fire Chief Thomas Stone said that roughly 30 percent of the fire department live outside of St. Bernard Parish, as many moved after Hurricane Katrina.

Resident opposition

Much like last week’s Executive Finance Committee and town hall meetings on the same issue, citizens packed the council chambers during the public hearing preceding the vote, using the final time to present their grievances with the fee increase to the council.

Many residents criticized the council for using the Fire Department as a “scapegoat” when it seems more possible to start making cuts at the administration’s level.

“The administration laid off 70 people earlier in the year, but since then have made new hires—parish government is being a bully,” argued St. Bernard resident Stacy Riley Sr. “You’re doing top-heavy hiring but laying off the little people.”

In his presidential report, Parish President Dave Peralta addressed claims that local government is inflated and needs to be scaled back to better match the size of the parish’s population.

He broke down parish payroll to more accurately put the numbers into perspective: there are approximately 30 elected officials including himself, the council, justices of the peace, constables and the District Attorney.

There are 30 judicial officials on the payroll which includes court reporters and a number of assistant district attorneys. Additionally there are a total of eight “quasi-local employees” on the payroll, which includes members of the Board of Zoning Adjustments and employees of the Registrar of Voters— both departments are controlled mostly by the state.

“This means that St. Bernard Parish Government has direct control of over approximately 380 employees, 108 of which work for the Fire Department,” Peralta explained. “The remaining 270 employees are responsible for providing all over services associated with St. Bernard Parish Government. These employees make an average of around $34,000 per year and 36 of their salaries are paid for by grants.”

Another recurring point of contention for residents was the parish charter and how it relates to imposing fees without a vote of the people first.

Section 2- 17 (d) states that “all proposals to levy a new or increase in existing sales and use tax, charge or fee shall be submitted to the voters for approval in accordance with election laws of the state.”

The council feels that based on 2009 Attorney General opinion on a similar matter which says that a fee can be imposed by way of an ordinance,  they can move forward with the fees legally. McInnis explained that because of the Attorney General opinion, the State Bond Commission says they cannot fund an election on something the parish can approve by way of ordinance.

“The charter is ambiguious,” explained McInnis. “It gives us policing powers to regulate fees, and then it tells us we can’t put a fee on unless it goes to the vote of the people. The Bond Commission of the State of Louisiana told us because we have an Attorney General’s opinion out there that says we can impose a fee, that they won’t even put it on a ballot because it would be like a straw poll.”

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