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|Fire department sets example|
Just a few years ago we were told the Ouachita Parish Fire Department was in a dire financial position and needed an infusion of cash to make ends meet.
An increased property tax dedicated solely toward operating the department was proposed. The people rejected it. This publication objected to it, too.
Instead, parish fire department Chief Pat Hemphill was advised to get his financial house in order. In other words, it was recommended he make ends meet with the resources that were available to him at the time.
That's what Hemphill did.
He made some tough decisions, too, cutting the fire department's expenses while maintaining a solid level of service for the residents of Ouachita. Some of those budget cuts entailed parish firefighters taking a cut in pay.
Earlier this week, Hemphill informed the Ouachita Parish Police Jury the parish fire department was in good shape financially.
It's in good shape money-wise partly because sales tax collections in 2008 have been more robust than the department projected when it pieced together its spending plan for the current fiscal year. Expenses are up, too, but Hemphill's department has more than enough income at its disposal to pay them.
It should be noted as well a property tax millage, which helps finance the parish fire department, was rolled back, or decreased. That means property owners in Ouachita Parish will benefit.
Signaling he understands the volatility government encounters in relying, in part, on sales taxes to pay its bills, Hemphill says he will utilize a conservative figure in determining how much money the parish fire department would collect in sales tax revenues in 2009. In other words, Hemphill's proposed 2009 budget projects no growth in sales tax revenues over the $5.5 million figure he originally used in crafting the fire department's budget for 2008.
In the meantime, Hemphill wants the police jury to sign off on a two percent pay raise for parish firefighters. Remember, they took a cut in pay when the fire department needed help in balancing its books.
There's no doubt firefighters deserve more money, and we believe a two-percent pay hike is within reason.
We would be remiss, though, if we did not remind Hemphill that the day will come when the parish fire department must decide how it will pay the 12 firefighters the department hired last year. After all, those firefighters were hired with the help of grant funding, which will run its course in a matter of a few years.
With that backdrop in mind, Hemphill should be cautious, too, in hiring additional firefighters in the coming year, which he has proposed to do. Maybe those proposed hires should be put on hold.
Yet, the progress Hemphill and the parish fire department have made on the budget front is rather impressive. They should be commended.
More important, the Hemphill and the parish fire department have set an example, which other governing bodies should follow.
We aren't holding our breath, though.