St. Tammany Parish Councilman Mike Lorino didn't realize he'd done the political equivalent of lighting a match by an open can of gasoline when he sponsored a resolution on Thursday's council agenda calling for the parish's fire districts to make recommendations on consolidating their services.
The resolution cited a study commissioned by parish government in 2012-13 that recommended, among other things, a phased-in geographic consolidation of St. Tammany Parish's 12 fire districts and one municipal department, in Covington.
That study, done by James Hartman & Associates, was controversial with fire officials at the time, and Councilman Richard Tanner noted that the parish had spent $40,000 on it and then put it on a shelf.
Lorino's resolution said the council "desires to re-examine" the study, noting that not all the districts had responded to the study and the council wanted to get their input.
The council didn't lack input from the fire districts Thursday, however.
Chiefs and firefighters turned out in force at the meeting, many wearing their uniforms, and for a time, security personnel would not allow anyone else into the council chamber because they said it was at capacity.
Fire District 1 Chief Chris Kaufman, who is president of the St. Tammany Fire Chiefs Association, spoke out against consolidation, saying the resolution was about the third time the issue has been raised.
He passed out copies of a presentation put together by the chiefs, saying he wanted to counter "assumptions" with an update.
He also took a shot at the Parish Council, which voted against creating an inspector general's office for the parish. If that idea were to be revived, Kaufman said, he would support it, and the fire districts would volunteer to be the first agencies to undergo scrutiny.
Lorino, who was clearly taken aback by the response, said repeatedly he supports the firefighters — a sentiment that other council members echoed. His intent was not to consolidate services, he said, but to ask the districts to look at their expenses and see if there are ways to save money by working together.
Kaufman said the districts do work together, pointing to mutual aid agreements, standardization of equipment and sharing of training facilities, among other things. "We have never been more aligned," he said.
Lorino acknowledged his resolution did refer to consolidation of services, and he asked that the item be removed from the agenda, which the council hastened to do.
But the councilman also defended himself, noting that Kaufman had mentioned Lorino's short time on the Parish Council — two years — but adding that a new person comes in "with a new pair of glasses, and maybe that's a good thing. And now people know you do a good job," he said, adding that the districts need to get that message out.
Councilman Gene Bellisario suggested better communication is needed between the districts and the parish government. He said he would volunteer to form a small group to attend the various district commissions' meetings.