Voters in two areas of western St. Tammany Parish will decide Oct. 14 whether to renew property taxes that pay for fire protection, a priority that has typically fared better than others in a parish where tax renewals often have run into trouble at the polls.
But officials in St. Tammany Fire Protection District 8 and District 12 are taking nothing for granted and are pushing the message that keeping the taxes in place is essential to keeping people safe.
Fire District 8 covers Abita Springs, the Waldheim area and Hillcrest subdivision. District 12 covers rural areas north of Covington and neighborhoods and businesses along the U.S. 190 corridor.
Fire District 8 has all three of its property taxes up for 10-year renewals: a 9.75-mill tax, a 9.8-mill tax and a 14.63-mill tax. The two smaller millages bring in about $340,000 each per year, and the largest tax brings in about $514,000, officials said. They account for the majority of the district's annual budget.
Fire District 8 has 13 full-time and 12 part-time employees and 10 volunteers who work at its three stations.
Jay Hawkins, who chairs the board of commissioners for the district, said that when the current board took over in 2013, it found a district in disarray with low morale and a fire chief who had been on a lengthy sick leave. The board made changes in leadership, and Hawkins credits Earl Gorrondona, who was hired as the chief, and his successor, Steve Glynn, for improving the district.
Since then, Hawkins said, the fire district has spent money wisely, replacing deteriorating equipment and completing its third station, which had been an unfinished shell for nine years. The district is adding a fire prevention officer who will do inspections rather than the state fire marshal.
Salaries and benefits, which previously used up 80 percent of revenues, now take up only 67 percent, and operating expenses overall have been decreased, with training the only area that was not cut, Hawkins said.
The district has seen its rating from the Property Insurance Association of Louisiana improve from Class 4 to Class 3. The lower the number, the less property owners generally need to pay for insurance.
District 12, which has 70 employees and operates five stations, is seeking a 20-year renewal of a 10-mill tax that pays for operations, personnel and equipment. The tax brings in between $2.1 million and $2.5 million annually and accounts for about 40 percent of the district's budget, said Susan Strain, who chairs the board of commissioners.
The district collects 25 mills in property taxes in all.
Fire District 12 recently received its best rating ever from the Property Insurance Association of Louisiana, according to acting Fire Chief Mike Haley. While it maintained a Class 3 rating, it edged closer to a Class 2.
"Renewal of this millage will allow our department to continue to provide essential fire and medical services to our citizens," Haley said in a written statement. "Fire departments are public entities that can show a monetary return to citizens through their effort to keep their rating low."