Harahan is forming a committee to look at the needs of the city’s Fire Department, its budget and what it would take to get the budget where the fire chief thinks it should be.
The City Council created the committee last month. Each council member will have an appointee, and Fire Chief Todd St. Cyr will have two.
St. Cyr said the appointments will be made by February and the group then will spend about six months studying the department’s roughly $980,000 budget and whether it is adequate for the city of about 9,300 people.
St. Cyr said the department has 13 firefighters, including him, and the city was only recently able to fund one of two positions that have been empty for about five years. Back then, the department also had two or three part-timers, but the city has been squeezed for money in recent years.
“We’re really lacking in manpower, big time,” he said. “That’s where we’re hurting. Every time we have a big structure fire, we have to call for help” from other departments.
The city saw its fire rating drop last year from a Class 2 to Class 3, which will likely result in higher premiums for fire insurance for residents and businesses.
“We need to come up with a plan that is going to fund a functional, sufficient fire department for the city of Harahan,” St. Cyr said.
He said that ideally he’d like to have two dozen firefighters, almost twice as many as at present, which would cost at least another $400,000. He acknowledged that would likely require a new source of revenue, possibly an additional millage.
“If we had that kind of money, we’d be amazing,” he said. “We’re really good at what we do now. We just don’t have the people.”
Harahan used to be able to depend on a sizable group of volunteer firefighters, but it had to end that program about seven years ago and now often has only three or four firefighters — or fewer — on hand to respond to calls.
“We haven’t had the manpower since,” St. Cyr said. “We’re showing up with three guys, two guys, and that’s not easy to do.”
The department has two front-line fire engines, a backup engine and a rescue squad, which carries equipment for forcible entry into homes. There were plans to get a new fire truck a couple of years ago, but the city’s financial problems prevented that.
The city now collects 5 mills dedicated to fire protection, which amounts to about $400,000 a year, plus a $15 fee on all commercial and residential properties, which brings in about $60,000 per year. The rest of the department's budget comes from the city’s general fund.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have this great commercial corridor that provides a whole bunch of (tax) revenue,” St. Cyr said. “Being a bedroom community, it’s the people you have to go to."
St. Cyr said that while one would expect to hear the fire chief say the department needs more money, he hopes that a recommendation from a committee of citizens tasked with studying the issue might carry some weight.
“I don’t think the general public knows that we’re really lacking the way that we are,” he said.
St. Cyr said he thinks educating the community about what it takes to have a sufficient firefighting force will help the people make an informed decision.
“Everyone wants top-notch service, but do they want to pay to have the number of firemen in the fire station we need?” he said. “Or do they want to meet in the middle? Or do they want to stay where they are?”