Politics and opinions aside, the St. George Fire District is facing uncertainty and anxiety as the movement to incorporate the city of St. George pushes on.
While the Department has attempted to remain as neutral as possible on the issue, Chief Gerard Tarleton is finding that to be an increasingly difficult task. Before his interview with Dig, Tarleton made it a point that he isn’t taking a position on the St. George issue and that his only concern is fulfilling his duties as Fire Chief.
“I want to be careful with what I say because I don’t want to inflame the administration – that isn’t what I want to do, but I can’t seem to convince them of that,” he said. “I guess everyone has their agenda – mine is to run this fire department the best way I can.”
That being said, public safety has been brought to the foreground of this argument by the administration – namely who will pay for it and where will they serve. Tarleton’s biggest issue with this argument is that it doesn’t even concern his district, only the city of Baton Rouge.
“If you read the discussions going on in the media, like the Advocate, they talk about how this will affect police and fire, but they’re only worried about it in the city,” said Tarleton. “They don’t want to discuss this issue as a parish. St. George is one of nine fire districts in the unincorporated areas of East Baton Rouge Parish – apparently some people don’t worry about that. We’re alone.”
These fire districts in the unincorporated parts of the parish, including St. George, operate independent of any funding from the city-parish. St. George earns revenue through a $14 million property tax within the district, though that amount could drop if the area is incorporated into a city.
“As the city encroaches upon us as it has for 40 years, it reduces the values of the millages the properties are assigned to – theoretically reducing our revenue which hampers our ability to serve and protect the people of our district,” said Tarleton.
Tarleton said that his greatest anxiety is the possibility of annexation by the city of Baton Rouge, which has happened before and can outright remove millable properties from their district.
“Our district used to run from Highland Road to Nelson Drive and from Sherwood all the way to Interstate 12 – we don’t have those properties anymore because they’ve been annexed over the years,” he said.
While Tarleton himself endeavors to remain neutral on the politics of the issue, several of his firefighters are heavily involved in the St. George effort. Many volunteer their time at petition signing events and the St. George City Chairman, Dustin Yates, serves as a firefighter in the district.
“I think 100 percent of our employees would be in favor of incorporation,” said Tarleton. “They’re not afraid of it – I think they look at it as a way to change the landscape down here. They see cities, like Central and Zachary, that incorporated and took hold of their school system and see that they’re thriving and that can be done out here.”
A “change in landscape,” according to Tarleton, would be a welcome change indeed. As a lifelong resident of southern EBR parish, he believes that the current form of city-parish government isn’t working well anymore, seeing that the “city” is emphasized more than “parish.”
“Look at us,” he said. “Everyone is worried about the city of Baton Rouge’s public services – no one is worried about us. The city it talking about all of this annexation, but I don’t think anyone really gives a rat’s ass about the St. George Fire Department – that needs to change. It’s no one mayor or council member’s fault – it’s the system. Sometimes the people don’t want to change the system, but it needs to be at least looked at.”
At the behest of Mayor Kip Holden, the fire chiefs from each of the parish’s districts have met to create one consolidated fire district across the parish. However, the city-parish government took issue with spending its money outside of the city limits.
“It’s okay to spend money in the heart of the city, but not okay to spend it in Pride, or outside of Zachary, or Brownsfield,” said Tarleton. “Brownsfield is a case and point – they have one or two people on duty every day. Who’s going to help them put out fires?”
Tarleton noted that on the day of the interview (March 3), his department was short 18 people because of low funding.
Personally, the Fire Chief doesn’t care whether incorporation happens or not – only that his department is fairly funded and given the resources it needs to save lives.
“I would hope, from this whole discussion if nothing else comes out of it, that a discussion about the system is had,” he said. “I think the incorporation effort has laid bare some issues with our current system. For all the stress that it gives, I think that’s a positive.”