Top 5 stories of 2015 for Livingston Parish: Development, politics, cops were hot topics _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Colyell volunteer firefighters, from left to right, Donald Davidson, Jerry Parker and Travis Clark, outside Station No. 1 of Livingston Fire Protection District 7, on La. 42 in Colyell in early November. Firefighters are concerned about providing fire protection to new businesses in the area.

A vague unease has followed the backhoes and bulldozers plunging deeper into Livingston Parish.

Colyell is a rural unincorporated community centered on the intersection of La. 42 and South Satsuma Road, between the town of Livingston and French Settlement. Roughly 20 active volunteer firefighters protect approximately 50 square miles that make up the local fire district, said Fire Chief Jerry Brook.

Presently, the tallest building in Brook’s district is a church. The largest is on the campus of the local school, which serves students in preschool through eighth grade.

However, just south of Interstate 12, in the corner of the district, companies are building a new industrial facility and a distribution center that promise to bring hundreds of new workers. The larger site, scheduled to open in the second quarter of 2016, has received an incentives package from the state ensuring it won’t have to pay its fire tax for a decade.

The addition of 700 workers may be of little note to a developed community, but in Colyell, it represents about 15 percent of the resident population.

Joe Koczrowski, the chief of Fire District 5 privately called “The Godfather” of Livingston firefighters by one authority, has expressed concern that his colleagues in Colyell may not be able to keep up with the new developments without the hefty tax.

Business leaders are trying to soothe fire chiefs’ concerns, saying the new neighbors and their tax base will be a long-term boon and there are short-term solutions to the department’s growing pains.

But firefighters remain concerned about their ability to provide service and vexed that they weren’t included in the discussions to lure the new businesses to the parish in the first place. In their worst-case scenario, the district will lose its class five fire protection rating and everyone’s insurance will soar — for newcomers and longtime residents alike.

The first hurdle will be to determine the precise nature of the problem. When first approached by The Advocate, Parish Tax Assessor Jeff Taylor, a Colyell native, asked for some time to review the case and contact various people involved. Afterward, he declined to identify exactly whom he spoke with but offered a frank assessment:

“The right hand is having trouble with what the left hand is doing,” he said. “We’ve got five different stories here. ... We just need to find out what the truth of it is.”

Brook, the fire chief, has identified several concerns. The department has been looking at building a new station, but the new industrial sites have sped up that timeline. A new station needs an engine and possibly a ladder truck, depending on the size of the new buildings. He also would like to hire a full-time firefighter or two, though the new expenses may hamper those efforts.

The Colyell volunteers operate on a shoestring budget, with an estimated 2015 income of $119,500, according to their latest inspection by the Property Insurance Association of Louisiana, which grades fire districts.

“We cannot fund all this by ourselves. There’s just no way,” Brook said.

Randy Rogers said he understands the firefighters’ concern, but he is optimistic. The recently retired head of the Livingston Economic Development Council helped broker the deal that brought Epic Piping and its new $45.3 million plant to Colyell.

“There’s some ways that this can be worked through. ... They get together, they’ll be able to figure this thing out,” he said.

Not all solutions are immediately obvious, and some require planning many years ahead. Rogers said he couldn’t specifically remark on District 7’s case, as he is not up to date on all the details. However, he said a local government agency in similar circumstances might make a major purchase, such as a new firetruck, and defer payment or pay only interest for several years, knowing a windfall is coming.

Once Epic’s tax abatement period expires, it will pay approximately $65,000 to the fire department in taxes every year based on the estimated cost of constructing the plant, according to the Tax Assessor’s Office.

“Telling Epic, ‘Go to Tangipahoa Parish,’ (would not have been) a good thing for us to do,” Rogers said.

He and LEDC President Larry Collins also said inventory taxes and taxes from the incoming beverage distributor next door — widely but not officially referred to as a Pepsi site — could help cover some expenses for tax-collecting agencies.

Various authorities have suggested other solutions, including a corporate donation and Epic either providing its own fire brigade or breaking off and forming a separate district completely. Company leaders did not return multiple calls seeking comment.

The parish owns land near Epic that could be donated to house a fire station, said Parish President Layton Ricks and Mark Harrell, head of the Livingston Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

Brook said he wants to talk about how his firefighters can manage growth around Colyell.

“I think that’s the biggest concern for everybody ... seeing how it’s gonna impact the fire department and the community,” he said.

And while the chief repeatedly emphasized that he doesn’t blame any business or government entity, he wondered if the whole process would have been smoother if fire protection was brought into talks earlier.

“It would have been a lot less complicated than it is now,” Brook said.

Parish officials can take for granted that when a new project comes to an experienced area like Denham Springs or Walker, all the interested parties fall into place, Ricks said.

“I just assumed (Fire District 7 officials) were aware (the new companies) were coming in, that they were involved,” he said. “You always have growing pains, and sometimes until you feel that first bump you don’t know what needs to be addressed.”

The town of Livingston provides a near-perfect foil for understanding the problem. While the parish district provides fire service, the town will provide water service to the new sites, though they are outside town limits. Yet while fire leaders are still looking for solutions, the town has a million-dollar, 300,000-gallon water tower already under construction nearby scheduled to open in March.

The town also will continue to provide backup firefighters in District 7, but Mayor Derral Jones has expressed concern for Colyell residents in light of the new construction.

“This has a big impact on their district. They have my sympathy,” he said. “I am concerned about what it will do to their fire rating.”

Taylor, the assessor, has vowed to host a public meeting in the week or two after Thanksgiving to address the firefighters’ concerns. State Fire Marshal Butch Browning said he plans to attend to help sort out the matter.

The head of Louisiana Economic Development, which administers the incentives program, responded to concerns with a certain amount of surprise, saying the program expands the tax base directly by luring new facilities and indirectly as workers buy homes and shop in the area.

“We do not recall a situation where a local municipal organization has expressed apprehension to the Board of Commerce and Industry regarding a new project and the abatement of property taxes, though we would expect these instances to have occurred over the 74-year life of the Industrial Tax Exemption Program,” LED Secretary Steven Grissom wrote in a statement.

And as developers creep east, past Denham Springs and Walker, the community will have to plan for more projects.

“The interstate corridor is coming. ... It’s not a matter of if; it’s when,” said Parish Councilman-elect Jeff Averett, who will represent part of Colyell when he takes office in January.

Brook said his department is prepared for the challenge.

“We’re more than willing to grow. We just need a little help,” he said.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.