Officials warn of insurance rate hikes if Baker keeps deep cuts to fire, police

Deep cuts to public safety, such as police and fire, are possible under a proposed $15.2 million Baker city budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year.

The council voted unanimously Tuesday to introduce the budget. A final vote should be scheduled for the July 22 meeting, Mayor Harold Rideau said.

Council member Joyce Burges told the council her constituents have expressed concern over the possible cuts.

“I’d like to see the city get together on this so we won’t see drastic cuts to public safety. It’s important to the city,” she said.

“It is important, but I have a budget to balance,” Rideau countered. “To balance a budget, you have to cut, there’s no other way of doing it. I’m open. I presented another option (a proposed utility rate increase), but it wasn’t acceptable to (the council).”

In June, the council voted 4-1 against raising sewer and water rates, which would have cost most homeowners between $8 and $15 per month.

Burges voted against the rate increases, along with council members John Givens, Charles Vincent and Robert Young.

Pete Heine cast the lone vote in favor of raising the rates.

After Tuesday’s meeting, Baker Fire Chief Danny Edwards said he hopes to have another opportunity to discuss the proposed budget with the mayor and city officials before its adoption. The proposed cuts to the Fire Department include less manpower in the 911 office and two fewer firefighters as well as reductions in repairs and maintenance, fuel, and computers and software, he said.

Association of Professional Firefighters of Baker President Arnold Lowther called the proposed cuts “unmanageable.”

Reducing Fire Department funds could also cause the city to lose its favorable Class 2 fire rating, which would affect the insurance rates of homeowners and businesses, he said.

The Property Insurance Association of Louisiana rates municipalities on a 10-point scale, with 1 being the highest. Criteria include the quality of the water system in terms of accessibility to possible fires, number of fire trucks, availability of manpower and training of firefighters and others involved in the fire system, among other factors, he said.

If the city drops from a Class 2 to a Class 5, for instance, insurance rates would triple, Lowther said.

“(Homeowners’) insurance would go up more than the $72 per year the utility rates would have cost people. Why the City Council can’t see that is beyond me,” he said.

The cuts would also cause increased response time both in the police and fire departments, because of possible reductions in staff, he added.

In another budget matter, the council voted unanimously to ask the state attorney general for an opinion on whether Burges can use her travel budget to supplement the salaries of six city employees to be chosen by the mayor.

Each employee would receive $250, she said.

City administrative officer Darnell Waites opposed the idea, saying that giving money to just a few employees would cause morale problems.

“If you really want to help the employees, you should pass the water rate (increase). This is like a go-around,” Waites said.