Recently a letter was sent out to Ascension Chamber of Commerce members by two Ascension Parish residents, Kathryn Goppelt and Al Robert. Goppelt is Chair of the Ascension Republican Parish Executive Committee and Robert serves as Co-Chair. The letter was sent, asking people to vote no during the upcoming May 4 special election on a ballot item, Fire Protection District No. 1 Proposition. The proposition states:
Shall Fire Protection District No. 1 of the Parish of Ascension, State of Louisiana (The “District:) levy and collect (i) a fifteen (15) mill tax on all property subject to taxation in the District (an estimated $3,555,000.00 reasonably expected at this time to be collected from the levy of the tax for an entire year) and (ii) an annual parcel fee of $100.00 for commercial parcels and $32,00 for residential parcels (an estimated $449,000.00 reasonably expected at this time to be collected from the levy of the tax for an entire year) (collectively, “the Tax”), beginning with the year 2013 and continuing for a period of ten (10) years, for the purpose of acquiring, constructing, maintaining and operating fire protection facilities and equipment within the District, with the proceeds thereof subject to be funded into bonds.
The Creole – Ascension Parish Online Newspaper was contacted by members of the fire departments making up Fire District No. 1, as well as fire officials from across Ascension Parish. The areas within Fire District No. 1 include St. Amant, Galvez, Sorrento, 5th Ward (Darrow), 7th District (Hwy. 44/ Roddy Rd./Hwy. 621 area) and Geismar. We were asked to look into the letter, meet with fire officials, question the Assessor’s office and highlight a number of purported facts within the letter that they wish to dispute. Our findings are below, and have led us to believe a number of accounts and statements in the letter are false and supply Ascension Parish residents and business owners with misinformation.
We’d like to now take you through the letter, line by line, to clarify, according to fire officials, the discrepancies, which they claim are “propaganda.”
Dear Chamber Member, (from letter)
From the beginning of the letter, there is an issue, as this letter is in no way related to the Ascension Chamber of Commerce. Matt Pryor, a board member with the organization clarifies:
“I don’t know of anyone on the Board of Directors for the Chamber who does not support our firemen, however, this is not an issue that fits within the mission of the Chamber, therefore we have taken no action on it. The fact that the ARPEC has decided to co-opt our mailing list to spread its opinion is disappointing, to say the least. We would hope that any political organization would operate on a more upright level. They have tried to label their opinion as that of the Chamber and that is not right. Don’t get me wrong. They have the right to free speech, and the right to make their opinions known. Whether we agree or disagree on those opinions, that right still exists and is the fabric of our Constitution and a truly American virtue. What no one has the right to is to claim, whether directly or by implication, that your opinion belongs to someone else. That is what the ARPEC did.”
Two new taxes are being proposed in a special election on Saturday, May 4th which, if passed, will result in a significant increase in your property taxes. According to Ascension Assessor’s records these taxes, a new 15-mill property tax and a parcel fee for every lot ($32 per residential and $100 per commercial) will amount to a 17% increase in your property taxes. (Excludes industry and industrial zones.) (from letter)
These statements are factually correct. According to a conversation with Ascension Parish Assessor Mert Smiley, there will, in fact, be a 17% increase in property taxes. Raising the rates by that amount would mean the following based on the current formula in place. Essentially, a homeowner with a property valued at $200,000 would have a $75,000 homeowner exemption, making their property tax amount based on a $125,000 price. 10% of that $125,000 would be multiplied by the proposed tax, so $12,500 x .015. The end result of increase would be $185.50 a year. That equates to $15.65 a month. A small amount, according to Bill Dawson.
“All this complaining about spending money for protecting people amazes me. In Fire District 1, we currently spend about $20 per person per year for their protection. The national average is $150.00. If you take your family to McDonalds once a month, you’re paying that increase. If you take them once a year, you’re paying what we pay now. That makes no sense to me.”
According to James LeBlanc, the cost they would be paying through an increase would actually go down over time, as insurance prices go down according to the fire ratings of area communities.
“When you see communities with these types of taxes being passed, their fire ratings go down over time. These ratings are based on things like the number of firemen on scene. We consistently get lower ratings because we have to have four volunteers for every one employed firefighter. So if a scene calls for four firemen, we have to have sixteen on site. That brings our rating down. By having more full-time, employed personnel, we would increase that rating.”
Gonzales Fire Chief Tracey Normand agreed, saying the benefits of paying for additional services far outweigh the increase in payment.
“The reason we, the Gonzales Fire Department, exists is because of a half cent sales tax we had passed in 2001. We wouldn’t be here without that. Look at Prairieville. Ever since their 20 mill was passed, they’ve bettered their rating. That means better service and better protection.”
Revenues from the two new taxes would generate almost $4,000,000 a year to pay for thirty-six new full-time firemen with average salaries of $55,000 a year with medical and pension benefits. (from letter)
Mark Stewart, Fire Chief for Prairieville, who has full-time employees, clarified this sentence from the letter.
“The starting salary for a full-time firefighter is in the region of high $20,000 to low $30,000. Even with medical and pension included, what they’re quoting is a very high amount.”
Bill Dawson also wished to clarify the number of employees the tax money would help provide.
“It would actually be thirty-nine full-time employees, 36 full-time firefighters and three captains. At no time have we said thirty-six. And it’s not just a tax to pay for salaries, but also services like training.”
James LeBlanc further clarified how the tax money would be spent, paying specific attention to items other than salaries.
“The money is not only for salaries, but also newer equipment, the upgrading of fire houses, the replacement of outdated fire trucks, basically anything that a station would need to compete with the increasing demands of a productive department.”
East Ascension presently has a volunteer-based operation with six stations funded with sales tax. (from letter)
According to Public Information Officer for District No. 1, Gene Witek, this information is also false.
“We actually have twelve stations that make up Fire District No. 1. There are six departments, but a number of our departments have additional stations. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to serve all of our residents.”
The 2013 budget already projects $1,605,000 of revenue with over $3,000,000 cash on hand at the end of 2013. Currently, expenses for personnel include $454,000 with at least four firemen who work days only. (from letter)
Nothing found indicated this was a false statement. However, the budget being discussed is for the current volunteers within those twelve stations, not the addition of the new 39 employees.
There are about two hundred (200) volunteers for East Ascension. Thirty-six firemen will replace these two hundred with only twelve firemen on duty at any time. (from letter)
This sentence in the letter seemed to cause the most anger and upset among the people interviewed, as according to them, it is nothing short of a lie.
“I can’t even say what I want to say about how much of a lie that is,” said James LeBlanc. “You probably wouldn’t print it. We rely on the volunteers in our community, those people who get up at 3 a.m. and go to the scene to pump the life into someone suffering. How dare anyone say we’ll be getting rid of them. Hell, we welcome more of them. These new employees will be working alongside those volunteers. I’m pretty sure the thirty-nine positions will be applied for and filled by those volunteers, but that doesn’t mean that’s it. How can anyone even say that? Only thirty something employees with only twelve working at any time? That’s just ridiculous. No, it’s more than that. It’s a lie.”
“If a major incident were to occur, be it at one of the plants or a building or a mass casualty situation, we would continue to depend on the volunteers. Thirty nine new employees wouldn’t be enough. We depend on our area volunteers. They’ll always be needed. The problem is we are going to continue losing them. People work 40, 50, 60 hour work weeks now, with both people in a relationship doing that. They need funding to serve these people moving into our parish. We will always need our volunteers. You can’t simply sell jambalaya plates or chicken dinners anymore and expect that to be enough.”
Bill Dawson stressed not only the importance of area volunteers, but why the full-time positions would actually be a benefit to the volunteers currently in place.
“The number of volunteers has not kept up with the ever-increasing population numbers and demands in our parish. There’s also $23,000 in this proposal to pay volunteer fire fighters to coordinate with both local and paid fire fighters. How could that be in there if we were getting rid of them? That makes no sense. I tell you what, if they want to keep lying and complaining about what’s going to happen with our volunteers, then they can get out there and volunteer. They can give up parts of their lives to make sure everyone is cared for and protected.”
LeBlanc was quick to add to Dawson’s statement, as a way of further stressing the importance and consistent need for volunteers.
“I agree. Then they’ll know what it’s like to get up at all times day or night, knowing you have to go to work the next day, worried your job may be in jeopardy because you’re tired. Our volunteers do that, everyday, for no pay, and they want to tell the residents of Ascension Parish that they aren’t needed. That’s a bunch of bull.”
The volunteer based system has worked and serves our community well. (from letter)
This statement hit a nerve with Normand, who, pointed out that the simplicity of the statement was a naïve one.
“And we used to be able to use a horse and carriage to get from point a to point b. Those times are gone. We are going to lose more and more volunteers everyday because people won’t be able to afford to do it. This has to be the way forward.”
No reduction is homeowner’s insurance costs were realized when Fire District #3 was created in Prairieville and 20 mills of property tax was passed to support paid firemen. (from letter)
According to an insurance company contacted, who deals with property insurance in the Prairieville area, this statement is not true. In fact, when the Prairieville Fire Department went from a Class 5 to a Class 4 rating, the average drop on homeowner insurance was in the region of $100.
This increase in taxes is not necessary to continue providing excellent fire protection to our community. (from letter)
According to Dawson, the increase is exactly what’s needed.
“There will be money in there for two training officers to train our volunteers to possibly become full-time employed fire fighters. It’s a great way for them to improve their qualifications and their standards.”
Support our volunteer firemen. VOTE NO to this tax increase. (from letter)
LeBlanc perhaps handled this comment best.
“It’s the volunteer fire fighter communities that pushed for this tax in the first place. Be against the tax if you want. That’s fine. Just don’t spread lies. It makes me sick to even look at that letter. Support our volunteer firemen? Stopping this tax would hurt them. They want this. All this saying we’re going to only have thirty-six firemen employed for the eastside is wrong. We’ve got a responsibility to clear this up, and I hope we have.”
Please feel free to contact us should you wish to discuss these issues. Kathryn Goppelt, ARPEC Chair, 225.241.9485; Al Robert, ARPEC Vice-Chair, 225.715.5858 (from letter)
“I hope people call them,” said LeBlanc. “I hope they call and demand to know why they’re spreading their lies. If the voters of Ascension Parish still choose to vote against the tax when they go to the polls on May 4, then that’s their right. My point, though, is that they have to vote based on facts, not misinformation or propaganda. I open my department up for people wanting to see what we are basing our comments on. We can prove that what they are saying just isn’t true.”