ST. BERNARD PARISH, La. - Voters in St. Bernard Parish will decide whether to increase their property taxes to pay for the fire department next weekend. It's a controversial millage increase that parish leaders hope will plug a $6 million budget shortfall.

From towering flames, to chest pains, firefighters are often the first responders in a crisis.

In St. Bernard Parish at any given time, 30 firefighters are on duty, but that number could soon be slashed to seven, according to Fire Chief Tommy Stone.

'You're going to look at waiting 20 minutes in some areas for a fire engine to get there on a fire,' said Stone.

A multi-million dollar shortfall in sales tax revenue means St. Bernard can't afford to fund its fire department, said Stone.

And unless voters agree to more than double the fire millage, from eight mills to 20, the vital service is slated for big cuts.

Without the millage increase, the fire department says it would have to lay off 79 firefighters, nearly three quarters of the force.

'I'm afraid for the firefighters losing their jobs. I'm afraid for the community being affected,' said Stone.

Fire station #2, on W. Judge Perez, is one of seven brand new fire stations built with FEMA funds that's in danger of shutting down without a property tax hike.

Only three fire stations would remain open parish-wide, said Stone.

But homeowners like Jack Lafitte believe the parish is spending money in the wrong places.

'I think they're using the fire department as a hostage to get money out the people,' said Lafitte.

Recently, the parish tacked a $32 'fire protection' fee onto property owner's water bills. A group went to court arguing it was an illegal tax. The fee will not be added to November and December water bills. And parish officials say the fee will disappear for good if voters approve the millage increase.

Lafitte's not convinced it's necessary.

'I don't think there's going to be any difference. Somebody's going to step up like they always did,' he said.

But fire officials say the 12 mill increase is crucial to maintain a basic service in St. Bernard.

If the millage increase passes,a property owner with a $200,000 home would pay an extra $255 per year. A property owner with a home assessed at $100,000 would pay an extra $51 annually.

Fire officials say, without adequate fire protection, homeowners insurance would skyrocket.

The measure is slated to come up for a vote December 8th.

Parish President Dave Peralta did not return our calls for comment.

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