The Lafayette City-Parish Council might ask voters in unincorporated areas for a new property tax to pay for fire protection.
A resolution on the Tuesday council agenda would formally notify the public of its intent to create a new fire district, and Council Chairman Kevin Naquin said in an interview the idea is to fund the district with about $3 million in new property tax revenue.
If the resolution on Tuesday passes, an ordinance creating the new district would come up for consideration on June 19. A vote calling for a property tax election on the December ballot would then follow this summer, likely in August.
Fire service in unincorporated Lafayette Parish is already mediocre at best, as measured by its Class 5 rating by the Property Insurance Association of Louisiana. Those ratings, which are assigned on a 10-point scale, determine how much property owners pay for fire insurance.
Naquin said the unincorporated Lafayette Parish fire rating is in danger of dropping to a Class 7, which he said could translate to a $250 annual increase in premiums. The potential new millage would increase annual property taxes $80 to $100, he said, although no specific rate has been formally proposed.
“We just don’t have what we need to take care of residents in the unincorporated areas,” Naquin said. “We need faster response times. We need equipment. We need more tankers, and water trucks.”
The city-parish contracts fire protection for unincorporated areas to municipal departments, paying these expenses from the general fund. But the parish general fund has been depleted with several consecutive years of deficit spending as revenues have nosedived with a struggling local economy and rapid municipal annexations of taxable property.
Voters across the parish are already set to vote in November on tax increases to generate more than $11 million annually for the Lafayette Parish courthouse and jail. Any new fire tax would be voted on and paid by unincorporated residents only.
In the past the parish has provided upfront funding to the municipal departments, which would then bill for the costs that exceed the initial amounts, said Scott Fire Chief Chad Sonnier. But Mayor-President Joel Robideaux’s administration is limiting payments to those initial amounts to help preserve the general fund.
That meant a reduction from $151,253 to $50,000 paid to the Scott Volunteer Fire Department in the 2017 fiscal year, according to city-parish budget documents. That ticked up to $56,250 this year, but Sonnier said the current level of service to the unincorporated parish – which he said is already subpar – costs about $90,000 annually.
“That’s the problem we have. We don’t want the Scott Fire Department to go broke supplementing the shortfall of the parish,” Sonnier said.
The parish budget for fire protection this year is a little more than $1.6 million, and it’s not clear exactly what the $3 million would be used for. Naquin pointed to a 2014 fire rating consultant report recommending the parish hire a coordinator to oversee unincorporated fire protection, but he said no new personnel are currently under consideration.
Sonnier said his department has two trucks dedicated specifically for the parish, since those dedicated to Scott are not allowed to leave city limits. One of the parish trucks is 15 years old, Sonnier said, meaning it is at the end of its recommended lifespan, according to National Fire Protection Association standards.
The Class 5 fire rating in the unincorporated areas is the worst in Lafayette Parish, according to the 2014 consultant report. Broussard, Carencro, Duson and Youngsville are all Class 4, Scott is Class 3 and the City of Lafayette is Class 2.
The ratings are proprietary, and it was not immediately clear Monday if there have been any changes in Lafayette Parish over the last four years.
But Naquin said the lack of funding is threatening to widen the service gap even more.
“If we do nothing, and we have to cut fire protection to small towns, then we are at the verge of them not being able to respond,” Naquin said. “At that point everybody’s homeowner’s insurance is going up.”