Modified St. James budget passed

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 9, 2011



CONVENT – The St. James Parish Council on Wednesday voted to remove a controversial fire services coordinator position from the parish’s $64 million proposed budget for 2012 after hearing extensive opposition from parish volunteer fire officials.

During a public hearing regarding the parish’s spending plan, Paulina-Grand Point-Belmont Volunteer Fire Chief Kurt Roussel and Assistant Chief Ryan Louque said the new position would take away funds needed by the six volunteer fire departments for fire protection.

“It would threaten fire services in our parish,” Louque said. “It basically throws our plans for the year out the window.”

The proposed budget had included a $136,200 line item for the coordinator position, which would oversee operations at the parish’s six volunteer departments. The cost to operate the position would reduce the annual funding granted to the fire departments by about $22,000, according to Louque and Roussel.

“We are stretched as it is,” Louque said. “Taking that much away would cause us to cease to exist. We would not be able to operate.”

Firefighters also felt they had virtually no say in the creation of the coordinator position, asserting they were given no chance to discuss it with parish officials before it appeared in the budget. Louque said the parish had just completed a parishwide fire assessment, and the coordinator position was not a part of the immediate recommendations.

The assessment, which was completed earlier this month, detailed shortfalls facing the fire system in the parish, including a shortage of volunteer firemen across the board in the parish. The parish has seen a slow decline in ranks, and residents have expressed concerns regarding fire protection.

Because of strict guidelines set by the Property Insurance Association of Louisiana, some volunteer fire departments have faced challenges in maintaining or improving their ratings because of a lack of available resources.

Councilman James Brazan said he understood the frustrations of the firefighters and said he would be open to amending the budget with an understanding that the Firefighters Association work with the parish to solve some of the problems facing the fire services system.

Councilman Kenneth Brass made a motion to remove the coordinator position from the budget and reallocate the funds to the six fire departments. Councilmen Ralph Patin, Brazan, Charles Ketchens and Brass voted in favor of the amendment. Councilman Jason Amato voted against the move. Councilmen Elwyn Bocz and Wilson Malbrough were absent from the meeting.

Amato, who is the volunteer fire chief of Lutcher, said his department needed the coordinator position because of manpower issues regarding management of the department. He said the move is just one step in the parish working with the fire departments to correct issues detailed in the assessment.

After voting to remove the coordinator position, the council voted to approve the amended budget for the 2012 fiscal year.