Normally it is the first responders that comes to the rescue. This past Wednesday evening it was the first responders being rescued when the Jackson Parish Police Jury (JPPJ) came to the aid of the Hodge Fire Protection District (HFPD) which was suffering from a severe financial difficulty.
The action took place at a special called meeting of the JPPD after a request the HFPD had made for a $5,000.00 loan had been tabled during the regularly scheduled monthly meeting held on July 19th. The reason the request wasn’t acted on at that time had nothing to do with the money involved. Funds were available through a 2% Fire Insurance Rebate the Police Jury has received the last couple of years, including $8,500.00 for the fiscal year 2020-21 and over $14,000 this year.
“This is the third time in the last six years that the HFPD has made a request for emergency funds,” said JPPJ Vice President Regina Rowe at the time. “We are not against helping any entity in need, but a fire district for the most part should be solvent, so before we just give them money again, we need to find out why they are continually in a financial crisis.”
The result was the decision to have another meeting on July 28th with representatives of the HFPD in attendance so that the continual financial problem could be explained. During the session HFPD Chairman, Ralph Laffitte, was asked to share some light on the biggest problem they faced.
“We are supposed to be receiving a fee for 700 parcels (real property held in full ownership) each year,” said Laffitte. “To date, we still have 237 parcel fees that remain uncollected.”
What does this mean in real dollars? The parcel fee in the HFPD is $72.00. Multiplying that by 700 it means that the district should have $50,400.00 at their disposal once all fees are paid. While there never comes a time when all parcel fees are paid, usually it is just a very small portion that is uncollected and nothing close to the $17,064.00 that remains outstanding.
What was even more alarming was that according to Laffitte this is not a one-time scenario but something that is dealt with every year. Over the last four years the dollar amount of parcel fees not paid comes to staggering $46,584.00.
“Last year there were 184 parcel fees that were never collected and the two years before were 112 and 114 uncollected parcels,” said Laffitte who added.
After Laffitte answered several more questions pertaining to what additional expenses the HFPD faces, were emergency calls still being able to be answered and what the current insurance rating was, Juror Amy Magee took the floor and made a “cut to the chase” statement.
“Let’s deal with the elephant in the room,” said Magee. “It is obvious that the resident’s in your district aren’t supporting you and the bottom line is that things simply can’t continue to be like it is. What is going to happen when there is no more money?”
Laffitte responded to Magee by stating that his district has never received any real support from the residents and painted a dire picture of what would take place if Hodge had no fire district.
“When the last parcel fee election was had in 2005 it passed by only a 49-48 margin,” said Laffitte. “Currently we carry a rating of 6 but without a fire district the rating goes to 10, which is the worst possible. At best insurance rates would be through the roof and at worst residents wouldn’t be able to get insurance at all.”
Juror Todd Culpepper then commented and further asked what measures the HFPD has come up with to combat the problem.
“We are fortunate that we have the rebate money, but this isn’t going to be there forever and we can’t continue to rely on this to help you make ends meet each year,” said Culpepper. “What I want to know is what are you doing to fix this problem? I hate to say it but we have got to find a solution or we are going to be forced to start looking at some alternatives.”
Laffitte responded by informing the panel that they have recently brought a person on board to help with the collection of the past due fees.
“We now have someone who is assisting us in getting these outstanding fees collected,” said Laffitte. “She is attempting to contact all the ones who owe and sending demand letters through certified mail.”
The discussion then turned to what recourse HFPD was pursuing against unpaid parcel fee payers as the district could demand payment from up to five years in arrears and that liens could be placed on properties.
“This is where out biggest problem lies,” stated Laffitte. “It costs money to file for a lien and hire an attorney to pursue a judgement. This is money we don’t have.”
Rowe followed giving a scenario proving that something had to be done or there would be no incentive for residents to pay if there was no recourse.
“Let’s say I get a letter demanding payment but I know that my neighbors have not paid the last couple of years and nothing ever happened. Why would I pay?” said Rowe. “On the other hand if I got a letter and knew that after my neighbors didn’t pay, a lien was put on their property and I even knew of some who had their property put up for Sheriff’s sale, I think I would be taking steps to get the fee paid.”
Quitman Fire Chief Philip Brown then addressed the panel on how their department has been assisting the HFPD. The session ended with juror members agreeing to give the HFPD the 2022 Insurance Rebate money in October with the recommendation that the district more aggressively pursue the delinquent fee payers.