Donaldsonville City Council passes $7 monthly fee for fire department

Michael Tortorich

Nearly every seat was filled as numerous residents attended the Donaldsonville City Council meeting June 22. Many spoke against the $7 monthly fee to fund the city’s fire department.

A large crowd attended the Donaldsonville City Council meeting June 22. Many spoke in opposition to the $7 monthly fee for fire and emergency services.

At times, people in the crowd jeered as the council discussed the ordinance, which provides for fire protection and emergency services. 

The fee will be billed to each household and business, which already pays fees for law enforcement and garbage, in addition to gas and sewer.

The council ultimately voted 5-0 to approve the fee.

“We’re going to do things decently, and in order,” Chair Charles Brown said in opening the meeting.

Prior to the public hearing, the council’s Raymond Aucoin went over a slide presentation on the city’s finances. As the crowd looked over the figures projected on a screen, Aucoin provided details on the city’s revenues and expenditures.

He explained how city leaders utilize the general fund, and dedicated sales taxes for sewer, garbage, law enforcement, and streets.

Fire Chief Adam Gautreaux also explained the city’s relationship with the Parish of Ascension regarding the three fire stations on the west bank. The Donaldsonville Fire Department responds to calls throughout the west side of the parish, which includes areas outside of the city limits.

Gautreaux said the parish and the city rotate purchasing fire trucks. The last truck was purchased in 2007 and has more than 100,000 miles on it without ever leaving the west bank, he added.

Gautreaux said the department logged about 1,800 calls in 2020. Firefighters are on track to reach that number again, if not more.

“It goes up every year,” Gautreaux said, after recalling a figure of some 1,600 calls for 2019.

Aucoin said Ascension Parish Sheriff Bobby Webre “has been very good” to the city by not raising fees for law enforcement.

“We have a very good relationship with the sheriff, and he treats us very well,” Aucoin said.

He concluded the presentation by showing the roughly $900,000 shortfall in the fire department, which has been shored up for through the general fund.

As the council members returned to their seats to continue the discussion, Brown reminded the audience that the city pays $46,000 to assist the parish with recreation. Also, they have to keep in mind raises for employees.

Council members have said the need to raise fees has been put off for years.

Brown, who serves as a pastor, said he believes in helping the poor. He offered to pay for 10 people who cannot afford the fee, which brought some jeers from the audience.

At the beginning of the public hearing, firefighter Amber Kimble expressed pride in working for the city’s fire department and said the additional support would “go a long way in helping” them.

Alvin “Coach” Thomas, who serves the west bank on the parish council, said he was concerned about residents who are unemployed and in poverty. He said the community has been stretched thin by the pandemic.

“Seven dollars to you might not be much,” Thomas said, prompting applause from the audience.

Jerry Butler began by commending the firefighters on the job they do in saving lives. He warned the council that their decision could come back to haunt them.

“What about people on a fixed income?” Butler asked them.

Dorothy Daigle said she was on a fixed income, and the fee would be a burden every month.

“I get one check a month. That’s it,” Daigle said.

Glenn Price, who ran for mayor in 2020, suggested the council put the fee on the October ballot and let the voters decide. Many in the audience applauded the idea.

After Price’s comments went over the three-minute time limit, Brown gaveled him to stop. Moments later, a deputy and Kurt Mitchell asked Price to return to his seat.

Mitchell, who ran for council in 2020, suggested the city apply for federal grants to meet the shortfall. He also asked the council to table the ordinance. 

The council’s Michael Sullivan said he has served as a volunteer firefighter for 28 years and has worked every major fire and crash in that span. 

“If you would have seen what I’ve seen, every one of you would vote for it,” Sullivan said.

Council member Reginal Francis added “sometimes hard decisions have to be made.”

“Some fees will have to be made. Any day of the week you hear those sirens every two to three hours,” Francis said.

He added the area only has two ambulances available most of the time. When residents call 911, they may have to wait for the ambulance to arrive.

“Those folks are there,” Francis said as he gestured to the firefighters in the audience. “They are first responders. Sometimes it’s a matter of life or death.”

City Attorney Charles “Chuck” Long confirmed the council has the authority to add the fee, just as it applies fees for law enforcement and garbage.

“I don’t like the sound of your ‘power.’ You’re addressing people. ‘Power’ is not the word to use here,” a member of the audience interjected as Long spoke.

Mayor Leroy Sullivan asked where the outrage was when the parish’s water service, Parish Utilities of Ascension, raised its bills.

“I’m a little appalled at the fact Ascension Parish government was able to increase the water by 33 percent without putting it on the ballot. Why didn’t the people go to Ascension Parish government and say that’s not right?” the mayor said.

He went on to point out the new Ascension Parish courthouse, which was built in Gonzales. He said “very few” stood up and questioned the higher court fees used to pay for the nearly $32 million facility. 

The courthouse was paid “on the backs of the poor people” who end up paying the fees, the mayor said.

“They didn’t bring that to a vote of the people,” Sullivan said. “When we do things, let’s be fair across the board. It should be the same for everybody.”

He added he did not think anyone “wants the service of the fire department to be less” than it is.

The mayor then encouraged people to go by the old fire station at night, which is where Acadian Ambulance has a contract to park in between calls.

“And see if there’s an ambulance there,” he said. “Many nights they don’t even have anybody in Donaldsonville or Assumption Parish. They have to wait for one to come from the east bank.”

Sullivan said if residents look closely at what the firefighters do, “you would have to take your hats off to them.”

After the council voted, many in the audience abruptly left the building.

In another matter, the council approved $44,000 as 20 percent of an overlay project to be done in two months with the Parish of Ascension.

It will be done on D. Thibaut Drive from the levee at Mississippi Street to Marchand Drive (Hwy. 3089 near Walgreens). 

Thomas said he appreciated the city’s cooperation on the project.