Fate of fire millage determined by voters tomorrow

Dec 7th, 2012 | By | Category: News

For months, the debates on the whether or not homeowners should take on an additional 10-year 20-mill property tax to fund the fire department have consumed public forums and council meetings, and tomorrow voters will finally decide the outcome. Other important ballot initiatives include the rededication of 1/2 cent sanitation sales tax to the General Fund, as well as a referendum requiring all parish employees to be residents of St. Bernard no later than 6 months after the date of their hire.

Much is contingent upon the outcome of the millage vote, and the parish cannot adopt the 2013 budget until
the fate of the millage is known. If the 20-mills pass, the tax is expected to generate almost $6 million per year. According to the ballot language, the collected revenue will be used “for acquiring, constructing, maintaining, improving and operating fire protection facilities and purchasing fire trucks and other firefighting equipment.” The new dedicated revenue stream would also allow the parish to retain the current staffing level of 106 fire positions.

On a $100,000 home with a homestead exemption, the millage will cost the homeowner an additional $51 per year. On a $200,000 home with a homestead exemption, the millage will add an additional $255 per year to their tax bill.

SBFD is currently funded by an 8-mill tax that generates around $2 million per year and the rest is paid for out of the parish’s rapidly dwindling General Fund. In October, St. Bernard Parish was given a $3.5 million
SAFER grant from FEMA. The grant, which would have been doled out in $1.7 increments over two years, was specifically for the retention of 35 firefighters. Parish officials were hesitant to accept the grant without the millage because it would have tied them to staffing levels, without fully covering the $6 million funding shortfall for the Fire Department.

If voters turn down the fire millage

The 2013 budget, called “The Doomsday Budget” by parish officials was drafted in the event the millage and 1/2 cent sanitation tax rede dication fail. It eliminates 79 fire personnel and would close nearly half of the parish’s stations.
70 parish government positions would also be cut. Fire Chief Thomas Stone has warned parish government
and residents that cutting the fire department down to 27 firefighters and closing half of the parish’s 8 stations would mean an inevitable rise in the parish’s fire rating, which plays into homeowners insurance rates.

“From Arabi to the Violet Canal we have a Class 3 fire rating; if the 2013 budget goes into affect and those fire stations close, we go to a Class 9,” said Stone.

Fire ratings are determined by Property Insurance Association of Louisiana, and their Fire Suppression Rating schedule. PIAL’s rules say that in order to receive a grade other than a 10, a fire department must meet all of the Fire Suppression rating schedule criteria which covers departmental organization, membership, training, alarm notification, quality of equipment, and housing of the equipment
or fire stations.

“A class 10 is given to a fire district with no visible fire protection,” said Blain Rabe, Public Protection Division Manager for PIAL.

In addition to fire response, SBFD also responds to medical calls, a service that Stone says will vanish if the cuts are made.

Several parish residents have voiced their concerns at council and town hall meetings that parish government needs to scale back their spending before coming to the tax payers and asking for more money, especially since many in St. Bernard Parish are on a fixed-income.

According to the parish charter, the council must adopt next year’s budget—which was drafted in the event that the 20-mills for the Fire Department on the Dec. 8 ballot does not pass— at the first meeting of December. So in order to be able to satisfy that charter requirement, the council voted to push back this month’s meeting dates to December 14 at 7 p.m. and December 28 at 3 p.m.

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