LAFAYETTE — The $1.67 million federal grant announced last week for the Lafayette Fire Department will boost the force by 20 firefighters but still leaves the department below staffing goals set by Fire Chief Robert Benoit.
Of the 20 new grant-funded positions, nine are in jobs the administration had frozen because of budget constraints and 11 are considered new positions.
Benoit said that, ideally, he would like to seek 75 new firefighters to bring the department’s size in line with the growth of the city.
Another potential problem is that the federal grant for the 20 firefighters is for only two years, meaning that city-parish government will need to find a way to pay the annual expense of salaries and benefits unless another grant could be secured.
City-Parish Chief Administrative Officer Dee Stanley said no decision has been made as to how those positions will be funded when the grant money is gone, but the administration is committed to “picking up those salaries.”
“How that will happen will be determined as we get closer to that fiscal year,” he said.
Stanley said the grant money allows Lafayette to beef up its firefighting force in the short term while considering long-term solutions for funding the fire department.
“This is a necessary and significant step, and it buys us some time,” Stanley said.
The City-Parish Council earlier this year discussed a public safety tax proposal that involved asking voters to approve a half-cent public safety sales tax while letting two existing fire and police property taxes expire, bringing a net annual tax revenue increase of about $10 million for the fire and police departments.
The council never took action on the proposal.
Councilman Jay Castille, a retired firefighter, said he hopes to revisit the issue before the end of the year.
“I’m still looking to push that forward,” he said.
Castille said he understands that any new tax might be unpopular, “but we need to think about the citizens and their safety.”
Stanley said police and fire expenses account for about half of the city’s operating budget, and there is little room to cut in other areas to boost public safety spending.
“There is going to have to be some difficult decisions in regards to public safety,” Stanley said. “It is going to take a new revenue measure.”
In the meantime, Benoit said, he is pushing forward with plans for a new fire station on Curran Lane off Ambassador Caffery Parkway.
The facility is expected to be completed by December of 2013.
The new grant-funded positions will make it easier to staff the new station, Benoit said, but he will likely need to bring on a few more firefighters before the doors open.
“It takes 15 people to staff the next fire station. We are only getting 11 additional people,” Benoit said, noting that nine of the 20 grant-funded positions are filling vacant jobs that had been frozen.
“That’s an issue we are going to have to address in the budget,” he said.
Benoit has said the industry group that develops fire insurance ratings has recommended Lafayette add two more fire stations.
The chief has said that without the expansion, Lafayette could see its fire rating drop from a 2 to a 3 when the ratings are re-evaluated.
A ratings drop from 2 to 3 could increase homeowners’ insurance rates in the city by an average of 9 percent, he said.
The $1.67 million grant the fire department was awarded this month is from the federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grants program.
The 20 new firefighters hired with the grant money are expected to be hired, trained and working by July, Benoit said.
City of Lafayette voters will decide Nov. 6 whether to renew a 10-year, 2-mill property tax that generates about $2.4 million for firefighter salaries.
That tax would continue existing funding and is not related to discussions about additional public safety funding.