[StBernard] St. Bernard Parish Council members say they will leave most fees in voters' hands

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Fri Aug 17 08:48:30 EDT 2012

St. Bernard Parish Council members say they will leave most fees in voters'

Published: Thursday, August 16, 2012, 6:22 PM Updated: Thursday, August
16, 2012, 6:23 PM

By Benjamin Alexander-Bloch, The Times-Picayune

St. Bernard Parish Council members are telling residents that come winter
the council likely will leave the parish's financial fate in the public's
hands. "It will come to a decision of whether you want to pay for the
services that you get or whether you don't and that's up to you all,"
Councilman Ray Lauga told about 100 people at a town hall meeting Wednesday

"You will have to decide whether you want to be a modern, suburban community
or whether you want to be a rural community that has less services
provided," Lauga continued.

There likely will be two separate proposals on the Dec. 8 ballot. While the
proposal for fees on non-fire related parish services likely will give
voters a choice of payment or nonpayment, the proposal specifically for fire
services might be phrased to make parish residents pay one way or another.

On Sept. 1, the St. Bernard Parish Council appears set to levy a $32 monthly
fee on the parish's approximate 15,000 residences and businesses to pay for
the parish fire department for the remainder of the year. Then, on the Dec.
8 ballot, parish voters would decide whether they prefer to replace that $32
monthly fee with a 20-mill property tax, which would add about $90 -- or
about $7.50 a month -- of the annual tax bill of a $120,000 home that
qualifies for homestead exemption. It would add about $200 a year, or $16.66
a month, to the tax bill of a $200,000 home.

If the 20-mill tax doesn't pass, the council might decide to keep the $32
fee in place. The council must determine the ballot language within the next
month in order to get it on the Dec. 8 ballot.

"We have to find that medium, between what people can afford and what we
can't afford to lose in terms of services for this parish," Council Chairman
Guy McInnis said.

Councilman Richie Lewis referred to the extra cost that would come from fire
department cuts.

"If we lose firemen, we lose insurance ratings and we have to pay more," he
said. "One way or another, it's a lose-lose situation for us."

The other ballot proposal would let residents vote on an additional fee for
non-fire parish services, such as community development, recreation, public
works, mosquito control and road lighting. Councilmen have not yet said the
extent of that fee or its structure.

If voters do not approve that non-fire service fee, councilmen say such
services -- and likely the employees who work in those departments -- would
have to be cut substantially.

"If you want to cut the services... then that is perfectly fine. It is up to
you," Lewis said. "We are saying we don't want to put all these fees on the
water bill. We want you to vote on what you are going to pay for."

While the 20-mill tax for the fire department would generate about $5.7
million annually, that would still put the parish well shy of next year's
overall projected $10.2 million deficit.

If the council cannot find other non-personnel cuts, the parish would have
to lay off an additional 92 employees to find the needed $4.5 million in
annual savings. Lewis on Tuesday did propose about $1.7 million in
non-personnel cuts and the Parish Council has vowed to comb through the
finances further at its budget hearings in October and November in an
attempt to find more savings.

Employee salaries and benefits represent about 65 percent of all government

Already earlier this year, 94 parish employees resigned, retired or were
fired. The parish hired 37 new employees, so all and all it has lost about
60 staff members, which has saved the parish about $1.6 million a year.

The largest drain on the parish budget is the fire department, which
operates at a $5.5 million annual loss.

Parish Fire Chief Thomas Stone has applied for $3.5 million Staffing for
Adequate Fire & Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant that would support 35
firefighters over two years, but he noted this week that, even if the
department receives that grant, it is not a permanent solution.

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