Divided Police Jury votes in favor of city’s ambulance-rescue proposal

Lincoln Parish residents came out to make their voices heard in Tuesday night’s LPPJ meeting. (photo by T. Scott Boatright)

By Malcolm Butler

It wasn’t easy, but the Lincoln Parish Police Jury finally put the fire out during Tuesday night’s monthly meeting held at the Library Events Center.

With plenty of representation from residents around Lincoln Parish, the LPPJ voted in favor of the City of Ruston’s five-year proposal to continue handling the fire, ambulance, and rescue responsibilities for the entire parish. 

The vote didn’t come without opposition, narrowly passing 7-5.

TJ Cranford, Logan Hunt, Glenn Scriber, Matt Pullin, Annette Straughter, Skip Russell, and Joe Henderson all voted in favor of the city’s proposal while President Richard Durrett, Vice President Milton Melton, Theresa Wyatt, Hazel Hunter and Sharyon Mayfield all voted against it. 

The vote comes three months after the same group initially voted against the City’s proposal by a count of 6-3. However, jurors had the past three months to study detailed information comparing the City’s proposal to the Lincoln Parish Fire District-Pafford EMS proposals and on Tuesday night the vote was in favor of the city.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” said Ruston Fire Chief Chris Womack following the meeting. “I’m just glad to get this behind us. It had become a divisive issue unfortunately, and we don’t need that.”

Choudrant Mayor Bill Sanderson, who was a member of the Ambulance Committee that met weekly for the past few months and who voted three weeks ago to recommend the City of Ruston’s proposal to the LPPJ, said he was relieved with the outcome of the vote. 

“We were very very concerned as to the direction this vote would go,” said Sanderson. “Ruston has provided ambulance service way above any other standard of service to the Village of Choudrant, to all of Lincoln Parish for many many years. I was scared to death that we were going to lose that. … We want to be the very best at whatever we do. It is important that we continue the advanced level of care to the whole Parish. I am proud of the vote tonight.”

Eleven different parish residents spoke during the public comments portion at the beginning of the meeting, with the overriding message being they wanted what was best for the residents of Lincoln Parish – with most stating they felt that was the City of Ruston proposal.

Resident Bill Jones batted lead-off and made a request of the jurors. 

“This is an important issue to everyone in Lincoln Parish,” said Jones. “(Logan) Hunt has presented a very reasoned explanation and analysis of the situation. What I’m asking on behalf of the people of Lincoln Parish is if you disagree with this analysis and conclusion, before you take a vote, please tell us how you differ with that analysis and why you differ with it. And why you think voting no to the city is the better choice.”

It was a simple yet valid request.

The original reason some juror gave for voting now back in July was the increased price of the City’s proposal, moving from $120,000 per year to $645,000 per year. However, through the past few months, it was proven that even the new price was the most economical for the parish compared to the price tag on the Fire District-Pafford EMS combination proposals.

Jones’ request for transparency was not met by a number of the jurors who ultimately voted against the City’s proposal. In fact only Wyatt and Mayfield offered reasons why they were voting against it, while Durrett, Melton and Hunter all remained quiet during the debate.

Wyatt and Mayfield cited a combination of reasons, including the length of the 5-year commitment, the increased cost of the service as well as increase in fire insurance rates.

“Lincoln Parish people saw an increase in their fire insurance,” said Wyatt. “You know why? Because the parish rating went down. So not only will the rural people be imposed a tax they had nothing to do with, but they also have to take care of this increase in their fire. I think it’s wrong for us to impose a tax on anybody for five years without giving them the authority to mitigate the negativity that it’s going to have on their pocketbooks. It’s just wrong.”

The financial component for how the $645,604 per year (plus an annual increase based on the Consumer Price Index) will be paid for has not been finalized, although LPPJ Administrator Doug Postel said it’s being worked on, and he thinks it could be part of the 2023 budget that will be presented at the November meeting. 

Henderson, who ultimately voted in favor of the City’s proposal, asked about the ability to change it a one-year proposal as opposed to five years. However, Womack — who was among the crowd at the meeting — informed the jury that a one-year option wasn’t available. The City’s proposal was five years due to investment in additional personnel that would need to be made. 

Ultimately, Henderson cast a yes vote for the city’s proposal.

“I am going to vote for it,” said Henderson. “But let me tell you why I am going to vote for it. It’s not because of what the paper said. It’s not because of intimidating calls. I am going to vote for it because the numbers say we don’t have a choice. The numbers say we don’t have a choice. Would I prefer a choice other than $645,000 a year? Yes. But the numbers say we have to take the proposal because it’s the only thing on the table.”

During a more than 30-minute discussion by the jurors, it was evident that it wasn’t going to be a unanimous vote. And a number of jurors on the yes side gave their opinions as to why they believed the city’s proposal was the best route.

“Since July we have not been looked upon very favorably,” said Scriber. “We have been compared to kindergartners, junior high students … take your choice it’s not a compliment either way you look at it. 

“We have a chance tonight to at least start to gain a little favor with our constituents. We have an opportunity to correct some of this. You have seen it. You have looked at it. I was originally one of the ones who voted no on it. I have shared my reasons for that. But I have seen everything that I needed to see, and it has become clear to me.  

“If we are elected to be a steward of the parish, of our constituents, we must look at what is best for Lincoln Parish. Not a single person has called me and said that we don’t need to go with the city. Not a single one. And I have had a bucket full of people that have talked to me and said ‘You better take advantage of this opportunity.’”

Straughter cited her four-decade career in the healthcare industry and her direct dealings with the City of Ruston Fire Department as the reason she voted yes. 

“I am a nurse and I have been in the medical field for 40 years,” said Straugther. “During that time, I have worked with not only Chief Womack but other fire chiefs and other paramedics; Kip Franklin was one of them. And I cannot tell you the level of expertise that they bring to the profession. 

“What matters is the citizens of Lincoln Parish. My constituents of District 12 elected me, but I personally have taken to heart that I represent the entire Parish. And I will do whatever it takes to make sure your healthcare needs are met, always.”