Some firefighters are criticizing the budget decisions of local volunteer fire departments, specifically the daily use of fire department vehicles by chiefs and assistant chiefs.
Unlike surrounding fire departments in St. John and Jefferson parishes that have paid firefighting forces, St. Charles Parish’s fire service is a collection of 10 independent organizations, each with their own budget and own rules.
The budget for fire departments comes from a 1/8 cent sales tax measure that was passed in 1981 and is renewed every 10 years. In addition, a portion of the parish’s property taxes are dedicated to funding the fire departments.
Many of the local volunteer fire departments dip into the budget to grant personal use of fire department vehicles to officers.
Firefighter Wilton Ledet has held numerous appointments at the East St. Charles Volunteer Fire Department during his three decades as a firefighter.
He said his department recently purchased two vehicles at a cost of $50,000 for assistant chiefs to use on an everyday basis. He sees a problem with fire chiefs and assistant fire chiefs being granted full-time use of fire department vehicles.
“Two assistant chiefs have two trucks that they take home and I know the parish has a policy for parish-owned vehicles. As far as use policy, there are certain criteria you have to meet but I don’t think it’s being followed,” he said.
For those vehicles, Ledet said firefighters write down the mileage each time they are deployed to keep track of expenses, but when it comes to the vehicles used in everyday life by the chiefs and assistant chiefs, he does not believe there is any tracking.
Ledet said he posed questions to East St. Charles Fire Chief David Cochrane about how mileage and gas are tracked on the vehicles provided by the department.
“He said that they write down the mileage every time they fuel up. I said ‘how do you track what a vehicle is doing like that?’ He said it is his decision and it’s his policy,” Ledet said.
Recently, Ledet was behind the push to put an “official use only sticker” on the vehicles, which he said passed by only one vote.
“They did it, but it’s a small sticker about one inch by one inch right by the brake tag. The assistant chief said ‘you didn’t say what size it had to be,’” Ledet said.
Although Ledet praised the members of the volunteer fire departments, he said there may be a case made for additional oversight on how the departments spend taxpayer money.
In audits released this year for the East St. Charles Volunteer Fire Department, Bayou Gauche Volunteer Fire Department, Des Allemands Volunteer Fire Department and the Hahnville Volunteer Fire Department, the Louisiana Legislative Auditor noted that there was potential for financial abuse in each department because the same person was in control of income and expenditures. However, the auditor said due to the small size of each of the departments corrective action would not be necessary.
Chief Craig Petit, of the Luling Volunteer Fire Department (LVFD), defends the policy to provide vehicles to chiefs and assistant chiefs.
“It’s worth the money we are investing into those types of vehicles,” he said.
For instance, Petit points to one of LVFD’s assistant chiefs who drives his official vehicle to work at Monsanto.
Petit said in the case of an emergency at the facility, it would be an asset to have that vehicle on hand because it contains the equipment necessary to deal with first responder situations.
“If there is a major incident he can respond straight from the scene,” he said.
Similarly, when those who dive the vehicles in their daily lives get a call, Petit said the response time is decreased because they can go straight to the scene of the emergency.
“It quickens response time because if you are in your vehicle you don’t have to worry about going home and changing,” he said.
Petit said he knows of many situations where having the vehicles on the road has led to quicker protective action in emergency situations.
“There are a lot of times where I’ve had to respond and you are there, you have lights, you have equipment and you protect property and save lives by having that use,” he said.
As far as tracking gas usage in the LVFD, those who are granted use of the vehicles also get a gas card that they use for all of the vehicle’s fuel. In addition, they are also allowed to take the vehicles for short trips out of the parish for personal use. However, long trips require permission from the fire department and must be connected to official business, such as attending training seminars.
As far as allegations of abuse are concerned, Petit said he feels there is enough oversight already.
“If they follow the state auditor and the guidelines there is no abuse, it just depends on managing the budget and paying attention to it. Luling has never had an issue with our budget,” he said.
Petit said the detractors from the vehicle use program are likely just upset because they have not been granted the use of a department vehicle.
“Some people are jealous because some departments don’t have as many vehicles and some members don’t get them,” he said.
One firefighter who has served the parish for numerous years and asked to remain anonymous, said some of those who are granted use of the vehicles treat them like they own them.
“These people want to take these vehicles and use them as their own. Some of them are so stingy with them that if you did need to take care of some fire department business with it they will find any and every excuse to try and not let you use it,” he said.
The firefighter said the issue is pretty simple.
“I like free gas too. I wish somebody paid my gas bill to come back and forth to work every day,” he said.