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Firefighters Jesse Wingate, left, and Capt. Austin Watts with the Prairieville Fire and Rescue Department tests the fire hydrants in Manchac Plantation and Manchac Crossing subdivisions Tuesday Sept. 12, 2017, in Prairieville, La.. Watts said they are doing flow tests to see how much pressure is in each hydrant which is a rating requirement.

The Prairieville Fire Department is creating a $2.5 million trust fund with its own tax dollars to help retired firefighters pay for their health insurance until they are eligible for Medicare.

The board that oversees the parish district that provides fire protection to a 35-square-mile area that includes Dutchtown and Prairieville is setting up the fund as one more way to help lure new firefighters to the growing department and compete against other Baton Rouge-area departments for their services, the fire chief said.

"You have to stay competitive. It might not always be exactly same, but you know, if you don't stay in the ballpark, you know, you're going to have a very slim chance of getting anybody that wants to come to work for you," Fire Chief Mark Stewart said.

The department is in a hiring phase and is trying to boost its paid force to the mid-50s from the roughly 42 now on staff.

The fund, along with new stations and other changes, is one more sign of the transformation of Ascension Parish Fire Protection District 3 since the department was able to convince voters nearly 16 years ago that it was time for the volunteer department supplemented with general parish revenues to have dedicated taxes that could finance a paid force.

The fire district, which has two 10-mill property taxes and additional property fees, now has a strong balance sheet and made the move to self-finance the benefit.

The district ended 2019 with a fund surplus of more than $12.7 million, which is about double its annual spending for that year, a fiscal audit says. The Fire Department, however, also typically saves cash over multiple years for its next round of capital spending on trucks and new fire stations for the growing area.  

Firefighters already have state retirement and a health insurance plan through the district. But Stewart said the department's group health insurance plan was too small to provide the post-employment health insurance benefit also.

The board worked with an actuary to determine how much to set aside upfront, plus a small annual return from the market, to keep the benefit funded without additional outlays or premiums from firefighters.

Though the fund is entirely funded with Fire District 3's revenues, the district and its budget fall under the auspices of the Parish Council. The council agreed Feb. 18 to a budgetary change allowing the $2.5 million to be used for the fund.

Stewart said the future fund, which still needs to be finalized, will pay for up to $500 per month in reimbursement for the actual health insurance premium expense for a retired firefighter and his or her spouse.

Stewart said that the Prairieville department's workforce remains young. In the first five to 10 years of the funds' existence, he expected no more than eight firefighters to take retirement at 30 years of service, at which firefighters are eligible for full retirement, and use the new benefit.

"Most of them have a ways to go before they start looking to retire," Stewart said.

Eligibility for Medicare, a government health insurance program for the elderly funded with the payroll taxes paid by businesses and current workers, generally begins at age 65.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.