WBR parishwide fire chief likely to be named Jan. 9

Efforts to merge districts continues

“We’ll help each fire department put together a budget, and the parish will do everything we can to get everyone what they need.” Riley “PeeWee” Berthelot, West Baton Rouge Parish president

West Baton Rouge Parish has reached the halfway point of its yearlong effort to consolidate its six fire subdistricts, with Parish President Riley “PeeWee” Berthelot poised to name the parish’s first fire chief.

The new fire chief will guide the parish’s consolidation efforts to create the parishwide fire district by July, Berthelot said.

“We’re on track to where we want to be,” Berthelot said. “We have been doing a lot of the due diligence. We’re going to try and erase all these boundary lines to get everyone working as one.”

Since June, the parish has been moving toward merging separate fire subdistricts in Port Allen, Addis, Brusly, Lobdell, Erwinville and Rosehill under the parish umbrella as the solution to a two-year fight among parish officials concerning the distribution of more than $2 million in annual revenue from the parish’s fire protection sales tax.

At the root of the dispute was a 22-year-old formula used to allocate sales tax funds among the parish’s six fire subdistricts.

Several municipal leaders in West Baton Rouge Parish argued their fire subdistricts were getting short-changed in the revenue distribution.

They said 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 to determine how much money each subdistrict received annually.

After a two-year impasse among parish officials, the state Legislature got local leaders to approve its passing a bill calling for the merger of the six fire subdistricts into the parish’s fold.

“All this money already comes into one pot anyway,” Berthelot said. “We’ll help each fire department put together a budget, and the parish will do everything we can to get everyone what they need.”

The new parishwide fire district will be led by a fire chief who will coordinate the day-to-day operations of the parishwide district and inner workings among the various fire departments throughout the parish, Berthelot said.

A three-member committee — West Baton Rouge Parish Council President Gary Spillman, Berthelot’s executive assistant, Jason Manola, and state Fire Marshal Butch Browning — interviewed candidates for the fire chief post the week of Dec. 16.

Candidates for the position are required to have varying levels of experience in fire service as well as administrative or supervisory experience. Certain educational background in fire service, or a related field, is also required.

Berthelot said nine people applied for the position — five of whom are from out of state.

The committee interviewed only the four local candidates: Port Allen Fire Chief Rick Boudreaux, Port Allen Assistant Fire Chief Charles Stephens and firefighters Gerald Mann and Kenny Hunts from fire departments in Port Allen and Brusly, respectively.

“We wanted someone we felt could take all six departments and bring them together,” Spillman said. “The entire committee felt if we picked someone locally it would probably be an easier task for them to accomplish to bring this thing together. Any of the four people we interviewed could take this job and do it.”

The committee will make its recommendation to Berthelot, but the parish president will make the final call on the decision. Whoever Berthelot chooses will have to be ratified by the West Baton Rouge Parish Council.

Berthelot said he will most likely present his choice for fire chief at the Parish Council’s Jan. 9 meeting. The salary has not yet been determined.

“Going forward, the fire chief is going to provide the input and direction in helping us (combine) the districts,” he said. “We really don’t have the experience.”