When St. Charles Parish officials recently announced it would be reducing residents’ tax rates by approximately 5.3 mills, the news of tax reduction was welcome for most except for local area firefighters, who expressed concerns this year in council meetings on how their fire services budgets might be affected.
While parish officials assured local governmental departments dependent on millage income their budgets would see increases rather than decreases from new industrial tax revenue, fire services’ budget concerns remained. Strained by funding issues brought on by inflation, equipment cost replacement and staffing problems, St. Charles Parish area fire service members discussed their concerns with the Herald Guide this week.
Like many other local businesses and governmental entities, St. Charles Parish firefighters say some of their biggest challenges in the current environment stems from staffing.
Recruiting new volunteers to run local fire departments has become more difficult in recent years for St. Charles Parish fire services, so much so that Hahnville Volunteer Fire Department (VFD) has recently resorted to filling spots previously filled by volunteers with paid positions.
“Our biggest challenges are recruitment and retention of volunteers,” Armond Bourque, St. Charles Firemen’s Association President, a local 30-year firefighting veteran, said. “We have seen over the last 15-20 years a drop in volunteers with both parents now working to make ends meet.”
Lack of adequate funding for paid positions has also been a source of continued struggle for St. Charles Parish firefighters, an issue fire officials said have made it difficult for St. Charles Parish to compete with other nearby fire departments for qualified personnel.
“Due to lack of funding for career personnel, [we] cannot offer any type of benefits such as firefighter state pension or health insurance, only a paycheck,” Britton Allshouse, Assistant Fire Chief, Hahnville VFD, said. “Constant turnover rate due to this and lack of 24-seven shifts…we train and pay firefighters [only to later have them] leave and go somewhere else.”
Just as inflation has affected most areas of the economy, inflation has hit St. Charles Parish firefighters in the equipment department particularly hard. Members of the Hahnville Fire Department say they currently have two fire units in service well beyond the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)’s recommended 150,000-mile, 15-year lifespan, with one unit aged 32 years old and another unit aged at 28 years old. Replacement of those units have been delayed in large part due to high replacement costs.
“Currently there is a two-year lead time for fire trucks after an order is placed, and around a 36 percent increase from past budget,” Allshouse said.
The cost of specialized firefighting personal protection equipment, which must be replaced every 10 years, has also gone up dramatically and is now double its previous cost, Britton Allshouse, Assistant Chief of the Hahnville Volunteer Fire Department, commented in a recent interview.
While much of the fire department’s funding troubles may have to be tackled by parish government leaders, Chief Matthew Allshouse offered department consolidation as a possible solution that could help alleviate at least a portion of St. Charles Parish’s fire department staffing and resource woes.
“Within the fire service we need to look at combining resources and combining districts where it makes sense,” Allshouse suggested. “We have nine different [fire] districts operating as nine different businesses.”