I attended last night’s meeting of the Lincoln Parish Fire District Board’s Financial Committee as an impartial observer. I refrained from speaking out as is my right under Louisiana law governing public meetings in order to observe the proceedings and reach my own conclusions as to the situation at the Lincoln Parish Fire District. I was astonished by what I witnessed at this meeting.
First, Finance Committee Chairman Willie Hendricks was forced to wrest control of his own committee meeting away from Fire District Board Chairman Tom Thompson who attempted to run the proceedings. Upon Mr. Hendricks’ firm reminder that he was responsible for conducting the meeting as committee chair, Thompson immediately became petulant, finally tossing a copy of the agenda to Mr. Hendricks and declaring that he could “run it any way you want.” Mr. Hendricks graciously and diplomatically continued the meeting, insuring that each committee member had an opportunity to present their views while attempting to limit outbursts by Thompson who took it upon himself to address every committee member in turn as they spoke.
The budget presented to the committee for review by Fire Chief Dennis Ford included a 9% cut in salaries to achieve balance. Ford explained that the original intention of cutting only firefighter incentive pay was felt to be unfair since only select firemen received this pay and its elimination would be a burden born by them alone, thus creating an undue hardship. Public comments allowed only at the beginning of the meeting in violation of state public meeting laws were dominated by firemen and their families protesting any cuts to salaries with illustrations of the sacrifice and hard work performed by firemen and lamenting the fact that some firemen are paid so little they have to resort to public assistance to make ends meet. Committee members took turns praising the hard work of the firemen while showing their distaste for cutting salaries.
Mr. Hendricks reminded Ford that he and others had supported the recent sales tax under the promise of a manned fire station in Simsboro which has yet to materialize. Ford heatedly explained that he had made no such unqualified promise and that he only promised to man the Simsboro fire station if there were enough revenue to do so. Ford cited several state laws which prevented him from manning a fire station without a workforce expansion requiring even more nonexistent revenue. Committeeman Thompson explained that the sales tax had failed to generate the revenues promised by Jerry Smith of the Sheriff’s office, failing to mention that someone with Smith’s years of experience in tax collection would surely have warned that previous year tax collections were no guarantee of future performance and that tax collections sometimes fluctuated wildly due to economic factors.
Committeeman Sonny Barnett pointed out that participation in the firefighter retirement system was costing about $100,000 over what it would cost to participate in the Social Security System with an additional 401(k) plan consisting of a 3% deduction and 3% match. Barnett also pointed out to the firemen present that state law required the Fire District to pay some 25% of firemen salaries into this system and that this is part of their pay package that they don’t see but get nonetheless, and that “it must be paid by someone.” He reminded firemen that their complaints about low pay failed to recognize this money as part of their overall compensation.
During the discussion of budget alternatives, committeeman Layne Parnell pointed out the Fire Chief Dennis Ford’s salary was way out of line in comparison to other area fire chiefs. Thompson staunchly defended Ford’s inflated salary when it was pointed out that other fire chiefs in the area made considerably less by mentioning that Ford attended every local fire regardless of his jurisdictional obligations. Thompson continued to resist any attempt to cut anything in the budget through a spirited defense of whatever item was up for discussion. Barnett pointed out that in the corporate world, when businesses fail to achieve their sales targets that cuts are made at the top of the corporate scale and implied that this should be the case with the fire department.
Committeeman Mike Fulton incorrectly pointed out that the $72 fire tax was not being collected correctly since it was not being applied to every structure in the parish. The original issue placed before voters to authorize creation of the fire district specifically excluded outbuildings by referencing habitable dwellings. This was done to garner enough support for its passage. Mr. Fulton was arguing for a massive tax expansion through reapplication of the fire tax to every parish structure in opposition to the language and intentions of the original measure.
Committeeman Ray Robinson provoked a discussion of the legality of transferring equipment maintenance funds to the operations account with his suggestion that this year’s 9% shortfall be made up for one year only by such a transfer to give firemen time to organize their options. Several committee members expressed their desire to solve this problem now instead of kicking the can down the road. Committeeman Thompson expressed his belief that the economy was due to turn around soon with expected revenues to come pouring in, but Parnell reminded Thompson that he had been singing this same song since 2008 with the same result of flat revenues. Parnell pointed out that action taken in 2008 would have prevented the shortfall under consideration by the present committee.
Thompson went on to declare his support for Robinson’s proposal by noting that Ford had been able to secure numerous state grants for several million dollars and should be able to continue doing so despite the fact that Louisiana is drastically cutting support for education and health and claiming there is no more money to be had. Thompson’s rosy projections fly in the face of economic reality at both the state and federal levels.
After two hours of discussion, Committee Chairman Willie Hendricks suggested that three additional budgets be drawn up to include cuts suggested by committee members that included administrative line items, cuts to Chief Ford’s salary, and elimination of three firefighter positions so committee members would have figures to work with. Hendricks then called for another Finance Committee meeting next week to discuss these options and recommend a budget for consideration at the next Fire District Board meeting.
After watching the entire Fire District Finance Committee at work, it is my conclusion that Fire District Chief Ford and Fire District Board Chairman Thompson wish to not only resist any cuts to their empire, but actually continue expansion of the Fire District despite the fact that they can’t pay for what they have now. I quickly surmised that Ford and Thompson had counted their tax revenue chickens before they had hatched and placed the Finance Committee in the untenable position of having to make painful cuts necessary by their mismanagement. It comes down to whether to cut the chief or the Indians, and Ford is reluctant to give up a penny of his inflated salary, preferring to throw the Indians under the bus. Like bureaucrats everywhere, their preferred solution to dealing with this crisis is to call for more taxes instead of cutting the budget.
When the fire district was proposed, it was promised that it would operate as a volunteer force without paid employees despite the reservations of many. The tax structure was set up to support an all volunteer force and the addition of paid firefighters has destroyed its ability to sustain the Fire District. Supporters of expanding the fire district to a paid force are attempting to rewrite history and claim that the original levy against habitable structures was meant to be against all structures. They are relentless in their drive to expand government and increase taxes to support government expansion. They employ empathetic stories of hard working firefighters risking their lives to be away from their loved ones for too little pay. They would love to have us forget that government exists to serve the people, not the people to serve the government. Their hard work and sacrifice, though greatly appreciated, are beside the point. The administrators of the Fire District are not living up to the promises made to voters and are counting on voters not remembering these promises.
Hat Tip: Walter Abbott