The stability of the department’s budget rests in part on whether voters renew its $403,700 property tax for 10 years. The referendum takes place March 28. Early voting begins Saturday.
The five-mill tax was approved by voters in 1995 and renewed in 2005. It expires at the end of 2015. “If the millage does not pass, I fear that we will not be able to maintain our current fire rating and service to our citizens,” Mayor Tina Miceli said.
The Fire Department operated in 2014 on a budget of $941,250, with the dedicated property tax generating 43 percent of the revenue. Additional money comes from Harahan’s general fund, at the discretion of the City Council.
Chief Todd St. Cyr said it’s not enough to operate at minimum state requirements for staffing and equipment, which could compromise Harahan’s property insurance rating and raise premiums. He said the department’s Class 2 rating dates from around 2007 and reflects two conditions that no longer exist: a functional reserve fire truck (now gathering dust) and enough staff so that four firefighters show up at every emergency. Two firefighters left the department last year, and St. Cyr said he did not have enough money to replace them.
Failure of the tax renewal at the polls could force layoffs, Councilwoman Carrie Wheeler said. “Firefighting employees are definitely a necessity. There is a difference between wants and needs, and this is a need.”
St. Cyr said his budget is already skeletal. He cited a $7,500 fund for vehicle repairs, $5,000 for small equipment and $500 for an oxygen system.
The amounts surprised Joe Greco, director of Jefferson Parish’s East Bank Consolidated Fire Department. He said a set of new tires for a truck costs $4,000, a new radio costs $4,000 and a single new oxygen tank costs $500. “If he can make it on that budget, he’s a master,” Greco said.
In addition, the fire station, built in 1981, suffers from a leaky roof, broken ceiling tiles and faulty air ducts. On a tour of the building, St. Cyr walked into a darkened room and flicked a switch on and off. “See?” he said. “The lights have been out for a while now.”
St. Cyr said he worries that it could be difficult to recruit volunteers now. “We had a group of really, really good guys,” St. Cyr said. “But they struggled to keep up with the mandated training. … Back then, we could send you away for a weekend and then send you to a burning building. Now, you would require 240 hours of training and state certification.”
Nonetheless, the Third District Volunteer Fire Department next door in River Ridge and part of Metairie makes use of 40 volunteers, to supplement 41 paid staffers, according to the district’s last legislative audit. And Baudier said he has witnessed a growing interest in volunteering for local government. “I think people would jump at the chance to be on a volunteer fire department,” he said.
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