A financially troubled St. Tammany Parish fire district will end the year in the black, according to its governing board, but only because it is scrapping an ambulance service that had drained its finances.
That decision, which the governing board of Fire Protection District No. 12 made last week, may have fixed the bottom line, but it still drew criticism at Tuesday’s board meeting, with paramedics and others imploring the board to reconsider.
Tom Jordan, a paramedic, asked the board why it had expected to break even in the first place when ambulance services typically lose money in their first year. And he asked how other fire districts have been able to support their ambulance services.
Joe Mitternight, chairman of the fire board, said other districts might end up facing similar problems because of recent changes in health care reimbursements by Medicare, Medicaid and private insurers. The projections beyond this year don’t support continuing the service, he said.
Jordan shot back by suggesting that the financial problems might stem from other funds being misspent, a comment that drew approving noises from firefighters who had packed the meeting room.
Jay Holcomb, an audience member, said he reviewed documents outlining expenses that the district has paid for its full-time attorney, Robert Barnett, including transportation reimbursements for travel to meetings not connected to the fire district.
Sonny Schwing, the board treasurer, said every penny is being scrutinized as work continues on the 2016 budget.
The fire board will look at compensation for its most expensive employees, Mitternight said, and might make some personnel changes. But he said the district will not reduce its number of firefighters or cut their pay.
The board voted Tuesday against the idea of an internal investigation that Mitternight had ordered in response to complaints from district administrator Ray Newton, who resigned last week after claiming that he felt harassed and threatened by fire department staff.
Mitternight wanted the board to ratify his decision to appoint two board members and two firefighters to an investigatory committee. But Schwing said the board should leave it to a disinterested third party to look into any of the recent travails at the district. Other members agreed.
The Parish Council, which took the board to task for its financial problems earlier this month, had already asked the 22nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office and the state Legislative Auditor to investigate.
Mitternight urged fire district personnel to cooperate with their efforts.
Parish Councilman Steve Stefancik, who is on the panel that oversees the parish’s contract with Acadian Ambulance Service, said he was awaiting official word from the district that it is ending its ambulance service so the parish can change its contract with Acadian to cover the area served by District 12. That includes unincorporated parts of Covington, Abita Springs and Folsom.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.