Harahan residents will vote March 28 on whether to renew a 5-mill property tax for fire protection, with about 40 percent of the department’s annual revenue on the line.
At current assessment levels, the millage brings in $403,000 a year for the department, which typically has a budget of just under $1 million.
Fire Chief Todd St. Cyr said last year’s budget, which was a little smaller than usual, was $940,000, and his request this year is for $998,000. Harahan still hasn’t passed a budget for the 2015 fiscal year.
Heading into the millage vote, St. Cyr said he is hoping residents feel that the money they have already put up for fire protection has been well spent. He said that for the last tax vote, “our campaign message was ‘Help us help you.’ ” Now, he said, “it’s ‘Promises made, promises kept.’ ”
St. Cyr said feedback from the public has been overwhelmingly positive, but the department is not taking anything for granted. It has already canvassed about two-thirds of the city door-to-door, he said.
“Without (the millage), we’re in trouble,” he said. “I don’t know where the city would come up with the money to replace it.”
In addition to the millage, the city levies a $15 fee on all commercial and residential properties, which brings in about $60,000, with the rest of the department’s budget coming from the general fund.
The department has two front-line fire engines, a back-up engine and a rescue squad, which carries equipment for forcible entry into homes.
The department has 12 full-time firefighters, but two firefighters have left and the positions have not been filled.
St. Cyr said there are a couple of volunteers left from when the city folded its volunteer department into the full-time operation four or five years ago, but they aren’t insured the way a full-time firefighter is.
He said he plans to work with new Mayor Tina Miceli on finding insurance so the department can bolster its ranks with more volunteers. “We’re going to get serious about that and try to build that up again,” he said.
Firefighter salaries start at about $28,000 a year — St. Cyr said he makes $54,000 — but when benefits and retirement are factored in, each position costs the department about $50,000.
St. Cyr said that if the millage renewal is rejected by voters, the only way to save the money would be to lay off at least six firefighters, which would undoubtedly affect the city’s Class 2 fire-protection rating and raise insurance rates.
“The only place it could come from is salaries,” he said. “There is no fat in our budget.”
If the renewal passes and the department knows its funding is secure, it will likely move forward in the next year with the purchase of a new fire truck, which costs about $500,000. St. Cyr said the present reserve truck is almost 25 years old.
Early voting in the election started Saturday.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.