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Purported lies lead to fire officials speaking out

arpecRecently 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.”

Normand agreed.

“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.”













  1. Bryan Averett says:

    Sounds like you want the services and you like the fire dept but don’t want to pay. We live in a rapidly growing area that will require a larger staffed fire dept. No longer will the fire dept of the seventies or eighties be able to cover the amount of calls nor expense that is needed today. Volunteer members have been in decline even though the amount of residents have drastically increased. Some people have stated it outright they will never support a new tax. Even when presented with facts. I don’t like paying taxes either; however, it is needed, we as a community should support the people who put their lives on the line. Saying I support fireman (but don’t pay them or get them the proper equipment). What are you really implying? I hear “live within our means” thrown around plenty of times. These departments have been underfunded for years and can not continue to play catch up any longer. This is not a politician asking for a hand out, rather a fire chief needing much needed funds to simply protect the people of the community.

    • sam stelly says:

      I would support and have supported taxes for facilities and equipment. A new FD was built right around the corner from where I live. As I stated, my daughter has been a volunteer. What I do not support is a model that adds 39 paid positions were there are few now. This model has been done in other areas of the country and the number of volunteers has greatly decreased. What will be done with volunteers? What will be the requirements of obtaining a position? Who will manage the funds? In all the information that has been put out in the public (maybe I missed it) these questions have not been answered. The FD has done a poor job of educating the public or even notifying the public of their needs. And furthermore, the hostility that comes from “leaders” that is directed at the public is quite un-nerving. BTW there are MANY unpaid positions, opportunities, volunteers who contribute invaluable services and receive NO monetary gain. I am implying that the FD needs to do a better job at presenting its case instead of slinging mud.

  2. The 5th Ward VFD supports this tax 100%.
    We think this tax will greatly help our area.

  3. Did you attempt to contact ARPEC? If not, why not? If so, you should let readers know in the article.

  4. Joe Niquiporo says:

    @ Charlotte Guedry: If you would make a statement about the originators of this letter and how much their membership knows, why would you not question why Matt Proyer has to clarify or not know that a header that says “Dear Chamber Member” in NO way means that it came from the Chamber? The news media today seems to have issues with keeping their opinions out of their reporting, I have been hoping that Creole would be different! I support the firefighters but not the tax!

  5. sam stelly says:

    And it doesn’t end here. The next tax is the garbage franchise fee. What most people fail to understand is there has been added fees, fines and regulations that cost each and every one of us. AND those do not go to a vote of the people.

  6. “According to James LeBlanc, the cost they would be paying through an increase would actually go down over time, as property taxes go down according to the fire ratings of area communities.” I have never seen my property taxes go down. Somebody please explain to me how my property taxes will go down?

    • sam stelly says:

      You are correct; they won’t. It has been claimed for years that if this is done then the fire rating will go down and taxes will go down. We have not found any evidence that this is true. I could be wrong but I don’t think I am.

  7. sam stelly says:

    I also want to state that I support our volunteer firefighters. My daughter was one many years ago. I get upset when leaders misrepresent peoples intentions. Because I do not support a tax does not mean I do not support our fire department. I pay taxes and WOULD support a reasonable tax but this is not reasonable. Throwing the emotional argument at people that they hate firefighters or hate the fire department because they do not support this tax is insulting and demeaning. Let’s have a discussion on the contents of the tax please.

  8. Cody reeves says:

    I was a volunteer fire fighter in this parish for 17 years. Although I am no longer affiliated with any department in the parish because my job no longer affords me the 200plus hours a year for training purposes on top of the time to actually run calls I strongly support the departments. If you feel 185 a year is a lot of money to insure you have someone show up when you make that 911 please by all means join a volunteer fire department. They are always looking for help. I have been on more calls than I can count that I was the only person to show up and now I am not there. I just pray someone took my spot when I got out. As a parish we can not continue to count on volunteers as our only means of fire protection and EMS protection. These guys are are true heroes and pillars of our community but they have lives too and it’s getting harder and harder to find people that have the time to dedicate to serving in this thankless job.

  9. Sam Stelly says:

    ALSO, please tell me how this could be mistaken as coming from the chamber or any chamber member? It clearly has the ARPEC logo and is signed my the ARPEC members. So, NO ONE but the Chamber of Commerce can contact members of the chamber? We have been contacted on numerous occasions by Chamber of Commerce members that are upset about the slanted view that is presented by this organization and its' leaders on certain issues.

  10. Beth Lavigne Niquiporo says:

    Propaganda is making the citizens of the parish believe their homeowners insurance will go down if they pass this 17% tax. The fire department has used this same propaganda since 1971 and our insurance has constantly gone up. Has anyone insurance gone down over these years? We live in one of the richest parishes because we have all the chemical plants contributing. Some of the less fortunate parishes don't have any plants to depend on and their fire departments is not as nice as ours but they go to fires with all volunteers and do an excellent job. Those residents insurance is no higher than what we pay. Also our fire department buildings looks like the taj mahal compared to theirs. The bottom line, I am against any and all taxes including tax renewals. It's time for everyone to live within their means and stop taxing the people to death. The younger families are having a tuff time paying their bills, putting food on the table, and clothes on their childrens back. It's insulting for the fire department to ask for a 17% tax increase. Live within your means and be grateful with what you are getting. I encourage everyone to vote against this tax.

  11. We did attempt to contact the writer of the letter and received no response.The letter is, indeed, showing the APREC logo, and has been distributed by both writers. If it is perceived as propaganda by any parties, then it would speak on behalf of the entire ARPEC. ARPEC members may all want to review materials before they are sent their leaders.

    • sam stelly says:

      It was reviewed. You sure do make a lot of assumptions for a supposed “newspaper.” ATTEMPT: The ARPEC meets the second Tuesday of every month, which is advertised on the ARPEC website. Other than website, we also can be contacted on our facebook page and email address. Being as I am in charge of website, facebook and email address, I have not received any messages from you or anyone on your staff. Sounds like lazy reporting to me. The public is ALWAYs invited to attend our meetings. We do not do anything behind closed doors or out of public view. You, along with everyone on your staff, is invited to attend.

  12. Sam Stelly says:

    So, the basic argument by the Fire supporters is the ARPEC is reporting the truth but not exactly how they would present it. In fairness, I am a member of the ARPEC and we, as a group, would in no way, blatantly distribute false materials. Sounds like left-wing tactics of accusations of lies and falsehoods. Did this "online newspaper" ever bother to CONTACT Mrs. Goppelt or Mr. Robert? Not once was that mentioned. We have contacted P'ville and found that when this was done there that the number of volunteers decreased. This is also true in other areas of the country. So, NONE of what was said in the letter is LIES. Please read the entire article. THEY claim lies are in the letter but NONE of them came up with ANY, NONE, NADA, NIL, evidence to contradict the letter. Just because you claim its a lie doesn't make it so. THEY need to blame themselves because what has happened is THEY have tried to slide this by the citizens without advertising it. TO BAD the ARPEC go there first. Now they are on defense and it ticks them off.

  13. We should vote on this based on whether or not a 17% tax increase is a good idea. All the silly misrepresentations and lies by ARPEC in the letter aside. I say no. Framing the argument any other way by those for or opposed is propaganda. IGNORE IT

  14. A 17% tax increase would be outrageous. How about asking for something more realistic like 2 or 3% first. It would be far better than getting nothing at all.

  15. Kim Babin says:

    I just had a fire at my home and the Fire Department was awesome.

  16. Thank you Creole for reporting the true facts.