Early voting begins Monday in a special May 12 election on a controversial proposed tax increase for the Upshur County Emergency Services District.
Other than voters in the City of East Mountain, only rural residents who live outside an incorporated city limits are eligible to vote in the election on whether to let the district raise its tax rate from 3 cents per $100 valuation to as much as 10 cents.
(East Mountain city voters can participate because, unlike other cities’ residents, they pay taxes to the district on property they own in their city.)
The district will hold an informational public meeting on the proposal at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Gilmer Fire Dept. Early voting in the election begins that day at the Gilmer School administration building, 500 S. Trinity, and continues weekdays there through May 8.
Voting hours this Monday through Friday are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. May 7 and 8. The May 12 election is scheduled the same day as some city and school elections in the county.
Emergency Services District President Bill Darby said Thursday the district’s board called the election partly because last year’s outbreak of wildfires in the county “took our funds way down” and put a “terrible strain on the (firefighting) equipment.”
Additional reasons for seeking the tax increase to the maximum rate allowed by law include increased fuel costs, the disappearance of most past federal and state grants available for emergency services, and decreased property valuations, Darby said.
He also said the weather forecast for the next 1 to 2 years “is not much more promising than what we had” last year—meaning there is a high chance of more wildfires, and the tax increase is aimed at raising more revenue for the county’s fire departments.
Darby said his district’s board believes that if the tax rate isn’t increased, the county will be back to where it was 22 years ago before the district was formed—that is, lacking funding.
He said the board is asking voters “to continue to invest in the future.” He additionally thanked individuals “throughout the county that individually contributed” to their fire departments during last year’s fire season, saying that didn’t go “unnoticed.”
The county’s four county commissioners individually appoint one member each to the emergency services district board, while the county judge appoints the other. The board, which called the election earlier this year, currently has four members since there is one vacancy, Darby said.
He also said the board hasn’t tried to keep the election quiet, although “originally, when we first were talking about doing this and exploring the cost and opportunities, we were not broadcasting it.”
The proposed tax increase has drawn fire from Chuck Mears, an Upshur County TEA Party activist and one of three candidates for chairman of the Upshur County Republican Party in the May 29 GOP primary. In an e-mail sent Wednesday to news media, he charged it would “add to already burdensome taxes.
“Some of their (district members’) reasoning for this increase is that last year’s historic drought may return this year, so they will definitely need the extra money for this year and all the following years,” Mears wrote. “The Gimler Mirror reported last year that the State of Texas cut rural fire district funds, but according to State Rep. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) the State of Texas increased available state funds to reimburse rural fire departments for their extra expenses.
“In fact, we may not have another summer of drought and record-breaking temperatures,” said Mears. “In fact, because last year took the state Forestry Service somewhat unprepared they have been preparing to render more aid to rural area fire fighters more quickly than last year,” Mears added.