LACOMBE, La. -- Two months ago, the future of operations at St. Tammany Fire District #3 became shaky.
"We started looking at our budget and noticed it was about $250,000 short," said Chief Charles Flynn III.
For the fire district, with 35 employees and three stations, that meant trouble.
"We have a truck that's being refurbished for about $130,000 at Ferrara Fire Apparatus, so we were worried whether we were going to be able to do that, and potentially cut benefits and personnel," said Flynn.
The money missing was a portion of property taxes still owed by Louisiana Heart Hospital on Hwy. 434 -- $996,133.15 in total. The debt ended up at the sheriff's tax sale last week where someone did pay the amount to the parish, leaving the hospital now owing that person.
Hospital officials refused our request for an on-camera interview about this story, but instead gave us a statement.
In the statement, CEO Steve Blades said, “Those of us at the Louisiana Heart Hospital are proud to be a part of the St. Tammany Parish community and take our responsibilities as corporate citizens seriously. We were caught completely off-guard by the news of our tax arrearages to the Parish. We intend to correct the deficiency immediately and apologize for any problems that have arisen. We filed a tax appeal earlier this year and were under the impression that the appeal was made for the current tax year as well as the next tax year. We now realize our understanding of the tax appeal process was inaccurate.”
But the assessor's office says it's been working with the hospital on its 2012 taxes since April, which it says no appeal has been filed for, and has even offered to reduce the 2013 assessment by 30 percent to help meet the obligation. It also warned the hospital days before the tax sale about the lingering debt’s fate.
The sheriff's office also sent three certified letters to the company that owns the hospital, all signed for, to warn them of the situation.
"To us, on our end, it seemed like a lack of concern," said Flynn.
The hospital also said in its statement, "When we bought the Heart Hospital just about a year and a half ago it was with the promise that we would promptly pay all of our tax obligations including property tax to the Parish. We remain committed to doing that, now and in the future. For us to thrive as a business we know the Parish needs to be healthy and financially strong. We pledge to do our share."
The fire department hopes so.
"I do," Flynn said. "It’s our largest taxpayer in our district so it means a lot to us that it be resolved."
Records show the hospital was up-to-date on all of its property taxes from 2005 to 2010, but 2011's taxes were paid with one month's interest.
The Louisiana Heart Hospital was sold to a new company in late 2011.