Residents in and around River Ridge will vote in April on whether to raise their fire protection millage from 20 to 25 mills, but local volunteer firefighters say the ballot measure is far more than a mere tax increase.
The rate hike would also incorporate the 2-square-mile area into the East Bank Consolidated Fire Department, a move members of the existing Third District Fire Department say would spell the end of a fire company that has been protecting families in the River Ridge area for six decades.
The Jefferson Parish Council voted this month to put the rate increase on the April 29 ballot, drawing opposition from members of the Third District company, which covers the area between Kenner and Harahan south of Interstate 10.
Jefferson Parish Councilman Paul Johnston said he proposed putting the merger of the Third District into East Bank Consolidated up for a vote at the request of the River Ridge Civic Association, but other residents have expressed interest as well.
“We’ve talked to a lot of our citizens in the area, and they’re interested in looking into consolidating,” Johnston said.
He said the roughly 3,000 homes in the district could find their fire protection rating go from a 3 to a 2 immediately and possibly to a 1 after about a year.
Fire ratings are based on a number of criteria that judge how good an area's fire protection is. The lower the number, the better, and the rating affects homeowners' insurance rates.
East Bank Consolidated, which covers all of East Jefferson other than the Third District, is a full-time fire company, and Johnston said the number of full-time firefighters available to protect the River Ridge area would increase from 24 to 66. He said there would be at least 18 full-time firefighters on duty at all times instead of 12 during the week and seven on weekends.
Johnston said only 50 fire districts in the country have a 1 rating, and East Bank Consolidated is one of them.
“I think they’ll be better off with a full-time fire department, but that’s just my opinion,” he said.
Third District Fire Chief Brian Cannatella and fellow firefighter Brad Migliore disagree, and they told council members they want to make sure voters know what they’re voting on in April.
“We want it to be clear to voters that we did not request this,” Migliore said.
Cannatella said many of the Third District’s firefighters could be out of a job if the millage passes and the district is incorporated into East Bank Consolidated.
“It would do away with the whole Third District,” Cannatella said. “Our employees are not guaranteed to get on with (East Bank Consolidated). All our part-time guys would lose their employment.”
In addition to 24 full-time firefighters, the Third District has 38 part-timers and 40 active volunteers.
Cannatella said that while the district is authorized to collect up to 20 mills in tax, it collects only 13 mills of that now.
He said he has asked Johnston to get the parish to increase that figure to 15 or 16 mills to fund raises for full-time members, hire 11 more and buy some equipment, but that he has gotten an offer from Johnston only of an additional $35,000 for equipment.
Cannatella and Migliore also charged that the parish hasn’t been as open with the Third District about its plans as it should have been. They said they should have been invited to meetings parish officials held with East Bank Consolidated to discuss what it would take to put all of East Jefferson under one fire company.
Cannatella, who said he has heard that the change would result in the closure of a fire station in Bunche Village, said his public-records request for records from those meetings was denied by the parish.
Johnston and East Bank Consolidated Fire Chief Joe Greco said at the Parish Council meeting this month that no decisions have been made.
The firefighters of the Third District say they want to make sure residents know what they are voting on, and they plan to make their case that the residents are best covered by the volunteer company that has protected River Ridge for the past 60 years.
“We love our area. You don’t understand that,” Migliore told Johnston.
“We’re not questioning your allegiance to your area,” Johnston countered, noting that the Third District company is free to campaign against the millage.
“If the citizens don’t want it, they don’t have to vote for it. It’s up to them,” he said.