GONZALES —Early voting begins Saturday for Ascension Parish voters who will determine whether or not to add full-time fire protection for most of the parish’s east bank.

A 15-mill property tax proposal with residential and commercial parcel fees is on the May 4 ballot for Fire Protection District 1, which covers most of the east bank except for Prairieville and Gonzales. The tax and fees would generate more than $4 million annually for a full-time fire department.

On a $150,000 house with a homestead exemption, the 15-mill tax would cost the homeowner an additional $112.50 per year.

The district, which serves more than 70,000 residents, currently consists of six volunteer fire departments and it operates on an annual budget of approximately $1.5 million.

The plan calls for hiring 39 full-time firefighters as well as seven administrative workers, including a district chief. Each of the six stations would be assigned six firefighters — two each for three shifts. There also would be three full-time shift captains directing all six stations during the three shifts.

The proposal calls for two part-time supervisors at each of the six stations to oversee the current volunteer staff, as well as funding to replace existing vehicles and equipment and to upgrade the fire stations.

“We must continue to grow our equipment in order to maintain our (fire insurance) ratings,” said Bill Dawson, who serves on the district’s board of commissioners

The Ascension Republic Parish Executive Committee, which helped defeat a parishwide road tax in November, has opposed the fire tax proposal. Kathryn Goppelt, ARPEC’s chairwoman, said the proposal represents a 17 percent increase in property taxes for residents of Fire Protection District 1.

“The service that the firemen do is excellent,” Goppelt said. “We are not against the firemen. They keep saying that. We’re against the 17 percent increase in property taxes.”

“No one likes to pay additional taxes,” Dawson countered. “However, in this case, the choice is to either pay additional homeowner premiums without full-time firefighters in our stations to respond to 911 calls or to pay this additional millage for full-time, paid firefighters, which will allow the district to improve our insurance ratings. This new millage will cost our residents about $78 per year per resident for fire protection and EMS service.”