Melissa_Guitreau

Melissa Guitreau

The volunteer fire department in French Settlement was left with less than $1,000 in the bank and an unpaid insurance bill that threatened a shutdown when authorities arrested the treasurer last week, officials said.

Melissa Guitreau, who is married to the fire chief, is accused of embezzling $225,000 from the fire department over the course of a year and a half, leaving it in a financial mess that puts homeowners' fire safety and their insurance coverage at risk, officials said.

"She drained everything," said Livingston Parish Councilman Jeff Averett, who represents the French Settlement area. "It's bad."

Now, the Livingston Parish Council and businesses in the area are pitching in to keep Fire Protection District No. 8 running.

Local businesses raised $9,300 to fund the fire department's operations through the end of the year, said Parish Council member Garry “Frog” Talbert.

“I think the importance of the fire district to the community needs to be noted, that the people in the community rose to the occasion,” Talbert said.

On Thursday night, the Parish Council voted to loan the fire department $29,000 for its insurance bill.

"We’re shoring them up with their insurance costs," said Parish President Layton Ricks. 

"If you lose insurance and close for one day, your fire rating goes up to a 10," Averett said in an interview prior to the meeting. He said losing the department would cause fire insurance rates to jump and prevent construction of new homes.

When the fire district collects its annual property tax revenue in early 2019, it will be expected to repay the money to the parish. The fire district is funded primarily by a 16-mill property tax that raises around $200,000 annually, according to a statement of its 2016 finances filed with the Louisiana Legislative Auditor.

Meanwhile, the finance manager for Livingston Parish Government has taken over the fire department's books until a new treasurer can be installed for the fire district, Ricks said. 

"We don't want to do that, but we don't want them to shut down and not be able to put out a fire for people either," Ricks said.

Averett said the fire district's five-member board held a special meeting on Oct. 31 to discuss the situation. 

It remains unclear how the board missed signs of the theft authorities said went on since February 2017. 

Board member Waylon Stafford said he did not know how it happened because he was appointed to the board recently and attended only one meeting before the arrest.

The Advocate has been unable to reach Fire Chief Alan Guitreau and the board's other four members for comment.

The fire district board is constituted by two appointments from the Parish Council, two from the Village of French Settlement and one by the board members. Fire Protection District No. 8 covers the French Settlement area but is politically distinct from the village.

Melissa Guitreau was secretary and treasurer of the fire district. According to the Sheriff's Office, she admitted on Oct. 29 to her husband that she was stealing money. Detectives began investigating and found 29 checks totaling $225,000. Authorities believe she was using the money to keep a family business afloat. 

She was booked Oct. 29 on felony counts of theft, forgery and malfeasance in office. 

French Settlement Mayor Toni Guitrau called the situation "heartbreaking," given the good work the volunteers do responding to fires and medical calls. 

"Things have got to turn around for us in French Settlement," she said.

Follow Caroline Grueskin on Twitter, @cgrueskin.