Voters could end up facing two St. George-related items on the May 2 ballot — the long-awaited proposed city of St. George and now higher taxes for the St. George Fire Protection District.
The two issues are unrelated, according to Fire Chief Gerard Tarleton and St. George spokesman Lionel Rainey, although the district has recently lost territory to the city of Baton Rouge in the fight over the new municipality. The Metro Council is expected to consider adding the measure to the ballot at its meeting next week.
Tarleton said the firefighters are hoping for more money to pay for new and upgraded fire stations, fire hydrants and also the rising costs of day-to-day duties.
“Certainly, we would hope that this tax election would not get coupled up with the politics of the city of St. George issue,” Tarleton said.
The pitch to voters comes at a time when some major taxpayers have been pulling out of the boundaries of the proposed new city, including the L’Auberge Casino and Hotel, the Mall of Louisiana, Celtic Studios, Costco and Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center. The move of those entities into the city of Baton Rouge also would seem to be a financial hit for the St. George Fire Department.
But Tarleton downplayed the significance of the annexations, saying they haven’t hurt the St. George department as much as it would appear. Instead the impetus for the new tax comes more from general struggles with growth and higher expenses, he said.
Under the new tax, voters within the district’s boundaries would pay two more mills, upping one of the fire department’s millages from 1.25 mills — which expires in 2015 — to 3.25 mills.
Residents pay a total of 14 mills to fund the fire department, Tarleton said, which means a cost of $35 a year for a homeowner with a house valued at $100,000 that qualifies for homestead exemption. The increase in the millage that’s about to expire would increase the annual costs from $35 to $40, Tarleton said.
He said the money would be used to add a station that most likely would be located in the Nicholson Drive/Bluebonnet Boulevard area, which also would mean hiring more staff. He said they are also hoping to move a station to their training facility on Airline Highway.
In addition, Tarleton said, running the department on a daily basis — especially paying higher retirement contributions — has become more expensive. He said the Fire Department has not asked for a tax increase in more than a decade.
Tarleton said the Fire Department has struggled to keep pace with Baton Rouge’s growth, as the Fire Department’s revenue has not kept pace. The higher millage, if approved, would be in effect for 20 years.
Further complicating the problem is an agreement between the St. George Fire Department and the city that ensures whoever is the closest to an emergency will respond. Every time that happens in an area not technically designated to them, the St. George Fire Department is not receiving revenue.
Rainey, speaking on behalf of the proposed city of St. George, said the millage increase “should have no bearing on an election” for the city. The movement has submitted signatures to the parish registrar of voters, which are in the process of being verified.
Depending on when those signatures are approved, the measure could end up on the May ballot. However, opponents to the St. George effort have threatened lawsuits, possibly pushing back election dates.
Tarleton said they plan to hold public meetings about the tax increase after the Metro Council votes next week.