Prairieville and Dutchtown voters will be asked Nov. 4 to renew the original property tax and parcel fees that allowed northeastern Ascension Parish to have a full-time, paid fire department nearly a decade ago.
Officials with parish Fire Protection District No. 3 said they are seeking renewal of the dedicated taxes and fees that voters in the 35-square mile district first approved in mid-2005 by overwhelming majorities.
“We’ve grown literally from being a small, volunteer fire department, at the time, to being able to staff full-time firefighters to try to keep with the growth that has occurred out there,” said Fire Chief Mark Stewart, who has been the district’s first and only paid chief since the mid-2000s.
Voters will be asked to approve two propositions: a 10-year, 10-mill property tax on one ballot item and 10-year, $32 parcel fees on residential lots and 10-year, $100 parcel fees on commercial lots, ballot language says.
If approved, the taxes and fees would be extended through 2024.
On a $200,000 home with homestead exemption, the millage and fees, if approved, will continue to cost homeowners $157 per year.
Early voting begins Oct. 21 and ends Oct. 28.
The taxes and fees, which are set to expire this year pays firefighter salaries, buys equipment and trucks and the covers the cost of new fire stations.
In combination with a second 10-mill property tax approved in April 2011, which is not on the ballot, the district has been able to grow from no paid firefighters to a 29-person department with four stations and plans to start construction on a fifth on Bluff Road next year.
Earlier this year, the department completed construction of the Duplessis Road fire station, the fourth, at a cost of $1.34 million.
Those firefighters and stations are being hired and built, Stewart said, to keep up with recommendations of the Property Insurance Association of Louisiana, which sets fire insurance ratings and is making recommendations based on Prairieville’s and Dutchtown’s growth.
Calls for service from the department reached roughly 1,900 in 2013. He said that this year, the calls have already reached 1,700. About 75 percent to 85 percent of the calls are for medical issues, a category that includes auto accidents.
If approved, the 10-mill property tax would generate on average $2.1 million per year while the fees would generate another $470,190 per year, according to ballot language.
Ascension Parish Councilman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee, who lives in Fire District 3, said he opposes the renewal because he contends the district has enough revenue to operate with the second 10-mill tax.
He has taken issue with how the second 10-year tax was approved in 2011 which had only a 3.7 percent turnout. He said there were promises made that the second tax would be used for fire stations and eventually the first tax would be allowed to lapse, which he supports.
“Who else in the parish pays 20 mills for taxes for fire? Nobody,” Satterlee said.
“Why are we singled out? Why do we have the only non-volunteer paid fire force?”
Stewart disputed Satterlee’s claim about the promises over the second tax’s passage as coming from the Fire Department. He said the fire district is trying to catch up with growth incrementally, and the loss of the millage and fees would cut the district’s revenue by nearly 50 percent.
The Property Insurance Association of Louisiana , for instance, has recommended two more stations after the Bluff Road station is built, Stewart said. Each new station requires a minimum of six firefighters to staff and man fire trucks 24 hours per day.
“We’re looking to make sure we get that tax and parcel fees because again we’re at a bare minimum now. There is much more growth that has to occur for us to get where we need to be,” Stewart said.
Satterlee also questioned the need for the full-time paid force when other departments are volunteer and provide excellent service.
“They both go through the same training. Do you think the flames know the difference between a volunteer versus a paid guy? Why are we messing with something that wasn’t broken?” Satterlee said.
Satterlee, however, stands in opposition to other council members in the fire district who support the renewal.
Councilwoman Teri Casso, who served on the fire district board when the group was seeking the first tax, said paid firefighters and new stations, which are being added to the outer reaches of the district’s coverage area, are aimed at improving response time.
She noted that two children died on a weekend — the night before Christmas Eve 2012 — during a quick-burning fire inside a trailer, which lacked smoke alarms, in Darrow. The trailer was across the street from a fire station in Fire District 1, which has a volunteer force and was not able to man its stations at all hours on the weekends.
“All that can happen again. Accidents happen. We do not need to lose one life in Ascension Parish, in Fire District 3 because we rolled back on what is outstanding fire service protection,” Casso said.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.