West Baton Rouge should have one parishwide fire district by July 1

Public won’t see change in service

West Baton Rouge Parish officials say their efforts to consolidate their six fire subdistricts into one parishwide operation is almost complete as the July 1 deadline draws near.

The Parish Council introduced a $1.3 million budget last week that will guide the first six months of spending for the new parishwide fire district.

Fire Chief Charles Stephens has drafted an organizational chart that maps out the new fire district’s personnel structure and operation procedures.

To the general public, merging the fire subdistricts in Port Allen, Addis, Brusly, Lobdell, Erwinville and Rosehill won’t mean dramatic changes in fire service.

“If we suddenly changed something, then (fire) ratings would probably spike really high and that would end up costing people more on their home insurance,” Parish President Riley “PeeWee” Berthelot said. “We’re working everything out at a slow rate so we won’t upset any of the fire ratings.”

He said the six subdistricts will remain “pretty much” structured the way they are now.

The biggest change will be the creation of a civil service board, which will handle personnel matters for the new consolidated district.

Berthelot said a fireman and an appointee from both the Parish Council and Office of State Examiners will make up the three-member board.

Stephens said the board’s creation is required for the consolidation.

“We will fall under civil service because we will be a parishwide fire district,” Stephens said. “The parish’s civil service board will provide the parishwide Fire Department with some rules that we will have to follow as far as employee hiring, firing and disciplinary actions.”

Stephens said the parish is awaiting the Office of State Examiners’ approval of the new district’s job descriptions and organizational flow chart before the civil service board can be formed.

Parish officials said state approval could happen before July 1, or take up to nine months — at the longest.

In the meantime, the Parish Council is set to hold a public hearing and consider adopting the proposed $1.3 million budget for the parish Fire Department at its June 12 meeting.

Revenue for the new fire district will be generated by a parishwide half-cent sales tax dedicated to fire service. The sales tax generates about $2 million annually.

Distribution of that revenue, which was calculated by a 22-year-old formula, was the root of the fight among parish officials that led to the consolidation effort.

Several municipal leaders in West Baton Rouge Parish argued their fire subdistricts were getting shortchanged when revenue was distributed.

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 to determine how much money each subdistrict received annually.

After a two-year impasse among parish officials, the state Legislature passed a law calling for the merger of the six fire subdistricts.

Phillip Bourgoyne, the parish’s finance director, said he used recent financial audit reports for each of the fire subdistricts to outline projected spending for new fire district.

The proposed budget is a six-month spending plan for July 1 to Dec. 31.

“It’s like that because we’re taking over the subdistricts in the middle of our budget year,” Bourgoyne said. “In August, we’ll start this process all over again for a 12-month budget. Then I’ll have a little more information to work with.”

More than $500,000 in revenue for the proposed budget is dedicated to salaries and employee benefits for the 19 paid firefighters the parish will absorb on July 1.

A majority of the full-time paid firefighters are from the Port Allen subdistrict. Primarily, it’s volunteer firefighters who serve in the rest of the subdistricts.

“We’re going to have to figure out where we can be more efficient because all we are doing is consolidating. No funding has increased,” Stephens said.

He said officials are trying to determine how many volunteer firefighters the new district will have.

“We’re going to have to continue to do things with the personnel we have on hand now,” he said.