Fire protection services in West Baton Rouge Parish will drastically change by this time next year.
That’s because the parish is in the early stages of a program aimed at consolidating its six fire subdistricts into a single parishwide fire district.
The consolidation is an ambitious task Parish President Riley “Peewee” Berthelot has undertaken because he felt it was the only way to end a nearly two-year impasse among officials over revising the distribution of about $2.5 million in annual revenue from the parish’s fire protection sales tax.
“We must have presented over 20 different scenarios,” Berthelot said of the informal meetings on fire sales tax revenue distribution held during the past two years between parish officials and the mayors of Port Allen, Addis and Brusly.
The issue was rooted in a 22-year-old formula used to allocate sales tax funds among the parish’s fire subdistricts in Port Allen, Addis, Brusly, Lobdell, Erwinville and Rosehill.
The formula, adopted by the parish in 1991, used a weighted average that took 50 percent of a fire district’s population and 50 percent of its assessed property value back in 1991 into account to determine how much revenue each subdistrict would receive annually.
It would have taken unanimously approved resolutions from the governing bodies of each municipality and the Parish Council to change the formula.
Berthelot said that was never going to happen because subdistrict officials were unwilling to agree on a proposal that would diminish their own subdistrict’s revenue.
“Anytime one of those fire districts was going to lose a dollar, they were not going to go for it,” he said. “We had dozens of meetings and couldn’t come up with an agreement.”
The impasse led Brusly Mayor Joey Normand to take the matter to the state Legislature earlier this year.
Normand had hoped to persuade legislators to enact legislation ensuring a fair distribution of fire sales tax revenue through the use of updated population data from the U.S. Census Bureau along with the latest property reassessment figures.
Instead, state legislators were able to get parish officials to agree to support a bill calling for a merger of the six fire districts.
State Sen. Rick Ward III, D-Port Allen, filed Senate Bill 239 giving West Baton Rouge Parish government the authority to consolidate the fire subdistricts.
It sailed through both houses of the Legislature and Gov. Bobby Jindal signed the act into law on June 5.
“I really thought it was unfair to try and get state officials to solve our local problems,” Berthelot said. But, “if it was going to take me taking this under my umbrella to reach a compromise, I said I’d do it. This is a whole new branch of government for me. Something that wasn’t on my plate.”
Folding the six fire districts into a single unit will be a complicated endeavor that Berthelot said the parish hopes to accomplish by July 2014.
Achieving a unified fire district will involve creating a civil service board to handle disciplinary matters for fire district employees, devising an incentive plan to retain the more than 100 volunteer firefighters working throughout the parish and determining what to do with the districts’ nearly two dozen paid firefighters.
“I don’t think there will be any job cuts; some titles may change though,” Berthelot said. “I can’t promise anyone their job title.”
Berthelot said he’ll also be appointing a fire chief to oversee and manage the daily operations of the new fire district.
“His appointment will be by me,” Berthelot added. “We’re going to find the best guy who can come in and manage these people.”
Port Allen Fire Chief Rick Boudreaux said his firefighters are concerned about how the new district will be structured.
Port Allen has the largest number of salaried firefighters in the parish.
Boudreaux said the Fire Department has 11 full-time firefighters and four contract workers on staff.
“They don’t know if all their accrued vacation and sick leave will carry over,” Boudreaux said. “Other than that,
I think the consolidation should afford us some savings that will allow us to put more into personnel services and getting better coverage for the area.”
Boudreaux said the consolidation will also affect fire ratings in the parish.
Currently, all the fire subdistricts have varying fire ratings, Boudreaux said. Those will most likely be merged into a single fire rating in the near future, he added.
“Some may benefit and some may not,” he said.
The Property Insurance Association of Louisiana annually rates fire districts on a 1 to 10 scale with 1 being the best. Insurance companies use fire ratings along with other factors to develop premiums for homeowners and commercial properties.
Blaine Rabe, public protection division manager for PIAL, said the nonprofit association evaluates multiple factors within a district such as water pressure, communication services and other “smaller topics” to grade fire districts.
“PIAL has to look at a full year of data to give a rating,” Boudreaux said. “Not every rating consolidation affects your insurance rates. Most likely, we’ll carry forward the same ratings we have now for a couple years until we have some good data … from the parishwide district.”
Officials will begin meeting next month to start sketching out the details of West Baton Rouge Parish’s new consolidated fire district, Berthelot said.
“The Parish Council will need to pass a resolution to create the district; each municipality will have to pass resolutions as well,” he said. “We have a year to get the structure in place.”