State Senate: WBR to convert fire sub-districts into one district

Written by Emily Bell on . Posted in Local

Officials are confirming that a bill currently before a state Senate committee will consolidate the parish’s six fire sub-districts into one district.

“Legislation will go forward to convert West Baton Rouge to one fire district,” Brusly Mayor Joey Normand said Tuesday afternoon.

State Sen. Rick Ward, who authored the bill, originally intended it to change the way fire protection monies are allocated in West Baton Rouge Parish.

The bill, Senate Bill No. 239, went before the state Senate Committee on Local and Municipal Affairs Thursday, April 25, at which point Committee Chairman and state Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb asked that the opposing parties get together and “come back with something that you both can agree to.”

“Everybody is going to have to probably bleed a little bit,” she said.

The parties met Tuesday morning, according to Parish President Riley “PeeWee” Berthelot, and a revised bill is scheduled to appear before the Local and Municipal Affairs committee Wednesday at 10:30 a.m.

Ward said on April 25, he wanted a revision of the bill to give powers to the West Baton Rouge Parish council “to create a single parish-wide district and do away with all the sub-districts, as well as the formula, and put in place from a parish level what they [think is] necessary.”

Berthelot said Tuesday, he expects the revised bill to include that provision – one fire district.

“That’s the direction that we probably need to go to in the future,” Berthelot said. “We wouldn’t have to split the money…We would put the money where it’s needed.”

He said, “We’ll probably have one fire chief over the whole parish.”

Normand said that Berthelot should be praised for his work to alleviate a growing issue concerning how tax dollars were being spent in the parish’s six fire sub-districts.

“Pee Wee should be looked at as a hero,” Normand said. “This is the type of step that needed to be taken for the long-term best interest of the parish.”

For over a year and a half, since June 2011, parish and local officials have met on the reallocation issue, proposing new and old formulas for the reallocation of fire protection monies.

A West Baton Rouge Parish ordinance, established in 1990 according to 1987 population estimates from Louisiana Tech University, currently allocates the following:

• 9.2% to Fire Subdistrict No. 1, Addis

• 17.46% to Fire Subdistrict No. 2, Brusly

• 50.3% to Fire Subdistrict No. 3, Port Allen

• 6.15% to Fire Subdistrict No. 4, Lobdell

• 9.51% to Fire Subdistrict No. 5, Erwinville

• 7.38% to Fire Subdistrict No. 6, Rosehill

Ward said the formula used to achieve those numbers, 50% population and 50% assessed value, wasn’t put into law but the outcome of the formula was.

He said his original bill was “an effort to put in place that formula as opposed to the outcome of it, so they can fluctuate along with the population and other factors, as well.”

The original bill proposed continued use of population and assessed value in allocating fire protection monies. The bill also provided that the parish council and “a majority vote of the members of the board” may revise the formula.

The current allocation formula, as it stands, can only be revised by the parish council in concurring resolution with the councils of the three municipalities -- Addis, Brusly and Port Allen -- according to the West Baton Rouge Parish Code of Ordinances, Part II, Chapter 74, Article VII, Division 2.

Normand said, “So obviously if there’s a re-distribution on the table, whoever’s losing is going to vote against it and whoever’s winning is going to vote for it…We’re at an impasse.”

“There’s been negotiations,” he said, “but the negotiations always broke down because the guys that are losing always came up with another formula that said they would come out to 50 percent for Port Allen and the rest of us divided up.”

If monies were reallocated according to 2010 U.S. Census numbers and new assessed values, the Addis and Brusly fire sub-districts would gain between 5 and 10 percent each and Port Allen would lose more than 12 percent. The Lobdell, Erwinville and Rosehill fire sub-districts would lose less than 1 percent of their current allocation, according to most recent calculations.

Port Allen Fire Chief Rick Boudreaux said 12 percent would translate to over a quarter of a million dollars lost in funding to his fire sub-district, which supports 85 percent of the commercial structures in the parish and about 50 percent of the dispatch call volume.

By August 2012, official meetings on the reallocation reached a halt and in November 2012, Brusly Fire Sub-district No. 2 gave Normand the green light to take the issue before the legislature, unanimously approving a $15,000 budget amendment to hire a lobbyist.

Dec. 13, Normand came before the parish council informing them of his desire to take the issue to the legislature.

Feb. 6, Addis Fire Sub-district No. 1 adopted a motion to appropriate money to help Brusly get a lobbyist.

March 7 and 14 a public notice was placed in the West Side Journal that read: “there may be introduced at the session of the Legislature to be convened on April 8, 2013, a bill relative to West Baton Rouge Parish Fire Protection District No. 1; to provide for certain powers of the board of commissioners; to provide for the allocation of certain revenues; to provide for specific dates to recalculate assessments; and to provide for related matters.”

Boudreaux said he had no knowledge that Ward was filing the bill until he saw it around Thursday, April 18 and that the issue hasn’t been addressed formally by the parish council and “more of concern” by the board of the West Baton Rouge Parish Fire Protection District No. 1, the district under which the six fire sub-districts reside.

Ward, who authored the bill, said at the April 25 committee meeting, “This is not an effort to interject myself into what goes on so much at the local level. I don’t want to interfere in anything, but I do want there to be some agreement at the end of the day that is fair and equitable for everyone…and doesn’t leave one area or the other out to dry.”

Normand, state Sen. Troy Brown, Baton Rouge attorney and lobbyist Dan Garrett and Mayor of Addis David Toups were present April 25 in support of the bill. Those present in opposition were Port Allen Fire Chief Rick Boudreaux, Erwinville Fire Chief Robbie Smith, Mayor of Port Allen Demetric “Deedy” Slaughter and Port Allen Councilwoman Ray Helen Lawrence. Parish Council Chairman Gary Spillman also attended the meeting.

Spillman previously said in 2012, at the prospect of taking the issue to the legislature, “If the legislature sees that we are arguing amongst ourselves in this parish, I can guarantee you the legislature is not going to… get involved in it.”

While opposing parties may disagree on how monies should be allocated among the six fire sub-districts, all parties agree the current law needs revision.

“What we want to do is simply correct a terrible error that was made back in the 80s,” Normand said.

“It was a flawed approach in 1990 and it is still a flawed approach,” Boudreaux said of using population and assessed values, an approach he feels leaves the poor, the elderly, schools, hotels, and places like Wal-Mart and the Port of Greater Baton Rouge in his fire sub-district less protected.

Normand said, “There’s been a tremendous growth on the south end of the parish where Brusly and Addis are, and there hasn’t been as much (growth) on the north end.” Boudreaux said, “The call volume is not heavy in these affluent new subdivisions that are being built in the south end of the parish. We have a greater demand for the call volume in the older parts of the city and in the rural parts of the city where the poor and elderly tend to live.”

Boudreaux said he would like the revised bill to include, instead, the formula that was reached by a consensus of the six fire chiefs in February 2012 “at the direction of the elected leaders of the parish.” Spillman disclosed that formula July 26, 2012 at a parish council meeting, saying, “Call volume was going to be worth 35 percent, assessed values with tax-exempt structures was going to be worth 45 percent and protection area was going to be worth 20 percent.”

Boudreaux said his fire sub-district, according to that formula, would only lose about $120,000.

Ward’s original bill proposed reallocated monies go into effect by July 1, 2013 and by June 13 in the year following each federal census, each parish-wide property reassessment and any change in fire sub-district boundaries.

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