Chief warns cuts would force closure of Lavey Lane fire station

The city’s fire station on Lavey Lane could become the first visible symbol of an austerity program tied to several years of deficit spending in the city’s general fund.

Fire Chief Danny Edwards said Monday he will have to close the station Nov. 1 and discontinue using part-time, contracted firefighters to meet Mayor Harold Rideau’s budget-cutting target this fiscal year.

The station opened in 2005 in a building that also houses parish Emergency Medical Services personnel. The city’s main fire station is on Groom Road.

Edwards said the city could lose its Class 2 fire insurance rating because of the cutbacks.

Rideau said he did not tell Edwards to close the station or what spending cuts to make.

“I told him to figure out what he could cut,” Rideau said.

After weeks of discussions, the City Council last month adopted a general fund budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 that relies on prior-year surplus money to balance it.

Still, the city needs to start cutting expenses as soon as possible, the mayor said.

“We’ve got to manage right now,” Rideau said.

The city also must tell the Legislative Audit Advisory Council by Sept. 23 how it plans to correct deficit spending in a special half-cent sales tax account dedicated to police and firefighters’ salaries and Police and Fire Department equipment.

The fund had a $324,299 deficit for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2012, according to audited figures.

The council discussed the deficits in a Sept. 4 “work session” without reaching a consensus on how to close the gap between revenue and spending.

“We’re on the edge of the cliff,” Rideau told the council and other officials during the special session.

Unless the economy picks up and sales tax revenue shows a corresponding increase, the budget next fiscal year will have to be drastically slashed, Rideau said.

Rideau said he cannot direct Police Chief Mike Knaps to make specific cuts in his department.

“He’s an elected official. We’re going to have to give him a certain amount of money and say, ‘Work with it,’ ” the mayor said.

“I don’t have any fat in my budget,” Edwards said. “The only thing I can cut is part-time and contract firefighters.”

The part-time employees, who work for other fire departments, are needed to keep the Lavey Lane station open, he said.

“I’ve got three rookies who are not allowed to drive a fire truck. If someone is off, I have to use a part-time firefighter to step in,” Edwards said.

The city earned a Class 2 insurance rating after a 2009 rating inspection and is due for another inspection next year.

“I’m going to do the best I can to keep it, but chances are we will retrograde,” the fire chief said.

Insurance ratings range from 10, for areas with no fire protection, to 1, the best possible. The city of Baton Rouge has a No. 1 rating.