Lafayette looks for fund source

Federal grant to pay for 20 new firefighters runs out in 2 years, officials say

City-parish leaders should start working now on a plan to continue paying for 20 new grant-funded firefighter jobs after the grant expires, Lafayette’s chief financial officer told council members Friday.

Lafayette won a $1.67 million grant last month to fund 20 new firefighters for the next two years under the federal Staffing for Adequate and Emergency Response Grants program.

But if the city-parish budget remains as tight as it was this year, there will be little available funding to continue paying for the new positions once the grant money is gone.

“What are we going to do after the SAFER grant runs out? This is the time to start thinking about it,” City-Parish Chief Financial Officer Lorrie Toups said Friday.

The new firefighter positions are needed to help staff an additional fire station off Ambassador Caffery Parkway that fire Chief Robert Benoit said is needed to serve a growing area of the city.

The fire station is expected to be complete by the end of next year, but even with the $1.67 million grant, more money is needed to fully staff it.

Nearly half of the federal grant money is being used to restore funding for nine vacant firefighter positions that had been frozen because of budget constraints.

That means the federal grant is adding only 11 new positions, and 15 new positions are needed to staff an additional fire station, Benoit said.

Even more money would be needed to reach Benoit’s goal of building and staffing yet another fire station.

“We need a revenue source,” said Councilman Jay Castille, a former firefighter who earlier this year supported a public safety tax proposal that called for levying a half-cent sales tax while letting two existing fire and police property taxes expire.

The tax swap would have brought a net annual revenue increase for public safety of about $10 million, according to estimates from city-parish government.

The majority of the council members opted not to pursue to measure.

“The council needs to sit down and make a decision on which way we want to go,” Castille said.

Castille said he had asked other council members and the administration for some alternative solutions to the public safety funding issue that new faces city-parish government.

“I haven’t heard any,” he said.

City-Parish Chief Administrative Officer Dee Stanley offered no proposals at Friday’s meeting, but he said there is no room anywhere in the budget to pay for new firefighters or police officers.

“You are not going to cut your way to make this happen,” Stanley said.

Councilman William Theriot suggested that a new parks and recreation tax that voters might be asked to consider next year could free up some money.

The city’s parks and recreation department is now supported by a combination of dedicated property tax revenue and a subsidy from other areas of the budget.

The recreation tax increase, which the council is expected to discuss later this month, could help cut the recreation subsidy, allowing the money to be used for public safety needs, Theriot said.

The amount of money that would be made available would be dependent on the amount of the proposed tax, but Castille said it would not be enough to offer any long-term fix for public safety funding.

“We need something in place that carries us 10 years out,” he said.