A proposed tax increase for the Upshur County Emergency Services District, which is the subject of a May 12 special election, drew both criticism and support from citizens at a sometimes-heated meeting of the district’s board Monday night.
About 45 persons attended the meetingat the Gilmer Fire Department to discuss the proposal, which would let the board raise the current tax rate of 3 cents per $100 valuation to no more than the maximum 10-cent rate permitted by state law.
It would be the first tax- rate increase in the 22-year history of the district, which allots funds to the county’s 17 mostly-volunteer fire departments..
Only rural Upshur County dwellers and residents in the City of East Mountain can vote in the election because other incorporated cities in the county opted out of being in the district.
The proposed tax hike is aimed at providing additional revenue to the fire departments, which now each receive $30,300 per fiscal year from the district.
As of about 9 a.m. Tuesday, 41 persons had cast early ballots for the election at the Gilmer School administrative office, where early voting began Monday, said Gilmer ISD Secretary Judy Moore.
Early voting continues at that office, 500 S. Trinity, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through Friday, and from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. next Monday and Tuesday.
Explaining why they proposed the tax hike, board members said at Monday’s meeting they have dipped into reserve funds for two straight years to finance fire departments; that potential grant funds for the firefighting entities have been reduced; and that the 3-cent rate is generating insufficent revenue to keep the agencies operating.
While state law required the ballot be worded to let the rate be raised to as much as 10 cents, the board’s attorney, David Griffith, said approving the increase would not automatically raise the rate that high. He also said the tax hike was not permanent.
In addition, Board President Bill Darby told the assemblage the board doesn’t yet “have a definite figure” of what the tax rate would be next fiscal year if a hike is approved.
But opponents of the proposed increase attending the meeting complained that the potential hike was too high; that communities will continue supporting their fire departments without it; and that governmental grants could be sought in lieu of a tax increase.
The main speaker against the proposed hike, Upshur County Grassroots Tea Party representative Chuck Mears, said that if a ceiling was put on a tax increase, “it’ll be at that ceiling real quick.”
Mears also quoted State Rep. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) as saying the state had redirected $81 million to cover costs to rural fire departments. (Responded board member Gaston “Bubba” DeBerry, “I’d like to know where it’s at.”)
Mears, who is also one of three candidates for Upshur County Republican Party chairman in a May 29 election, additionally quoted Hughes and State Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview) as saying they were preparing for the state to assist the local entities in case of another drought like last year’s, which triggered wildfires.
And the Tea Party representative additionally cited a Sept. 14, 2011, issue of The Gilmer Mirror as reporting that county fire departments had received $708,000 in equipment and cash through grants. However, Darby replied that amount “was not just for that year” (2011) alone.
In addition, Mears sought to rebut Darby’s published statement that weather forecasts for the next 1 to 2 years show a high chance of more wildfires.
“There are few things less dependable than long-range weather forecasts,” argued Mears, who said he had seen three conflicting long-range forecasts for the area.
He also said a permanent tax increase for a temporary problem (last year’s wildfires) was not justified—and that grant funds were available from the Texas Railroad Commission to cover increased fuel costs by converting trucks from diesel to natural gas and propane.
Darby later told Mears that neither man knows what weather conditions will be like, and that the BTU on converting trucks to natural gas is “not as good” as gasoline.
While opposing the tax hike, Mears said he didn’t oppose fire departments having what they needed to make ends meet. He noted he has helped the Pritchett VFD.
Sam Dodson, a member of the rural Simpsonville Volunteer Fire Department, complained that hiking the tax hike to 10 cents would be “egregious” and “almost a slap in the face” to citizens who brought firefighters water and food during last year’s wildfires.
He said fund-raisers ask the public for support, but taxes “are a demand.” He raised the prospect of people losing their homes and farms due to a tax increase, and said his department’s finances were “pretty good.”
John Melvin Dodd said raising the tax rate to 10 cents was “a massive increase” which he wouldn’t support. He said voters would be far more likely to raise the rate to four cents, and that taxing entities tend to “soak the pubic” for as much as they can. (Dodd’s statement came before DeBerry said the wording on the ballot, allowing the district to go up to as much as 10 cents, was required by state law and out of the district’s control.)
Sherry Breedlove said she “kind of” felt the way Dodd did, and Jean Elmore said raising the rate to 10 cents would be a 333 percent increase, which was “too much.” In addition, David Thornton told the board senior citizens are facing the same financial issues fire departments have.
But Rhonda Pope, acknowledging she isn’t eligible to vote in the election since she lives in Gilmer city limits, said she would “trust the wisdom of your board.” She said that as insurance ratings improve (due to improved fire protection), insurance rates drop and businesses could possibly be attracted to relieve property tax burdens.
As for the amount of aid the district now gives departments, she said, “In any operating budget, 30,000 is not much.”
The proposed tax hike also drew support, or at least indications of it, from representatives of some fire departments.
Dennis Medlin of the East Mountain Volunteer Fire Department said such costs as insurance consumed $19,000 of the $30,300 the district awarded his department last year, leaving only about $11,000 to buy everything else it needed.
Medlin said “high-priced bills” were the reason for the proposed tax hike, and that he only paid $10 in emergency services district taxes on his home.
Glenwood Volunteer Fire Chief Terry Conyers told those present the board was not out “to spend your money unwisely.” Without a tax increase, he said, fire departments will be “scraping for money” needed to purchase better equipment
Conyers also said he didn’t think the tax rate would be raised to the full 10-cent limit.
Pritchett Fire Chief Bill Fell told Mears, a Pritchett area resident, that “I’m trying to upgrade your equipment.” Fell expressed concern about the possibility a 20-year-old tanker could break down.
Board member DeBerry, who is chief of the Ore City Volunteer Fire Department, concluded the meeting by citing several arguments for the tax hike.
He said the amount of total state aid for Texas fire departments had been slashed from a onetime level of $25 million to $7 million, and that grant money is not currently available for fire trucks.
(Brad Moore of the Texas Forest Service had said earlier the departments could currently get no grants for new trucks from the forest service.)
DeBerry also said that the current 3-cent tax rate “is not generating enough revenue to keep these fire departments going,” and that the board has had to cut its budget some years due to lower property values.
“Yes, a tax increase is a bad word. . .but this is the lowest rate (of any taxing entity) in the county,” DeBerry said. He asked what entities other than the board haven’t asked for a tax increase since 1990, the year it was established as a fire prevention district.
He also said the board has had to pull $30,000 from reserves year before last and $40,000 last year, and that its surplus has been reduced to about $100,000.
In addition, the district still has “a long way to go” in providing equipment to fire departments, said DeBerry, who pointed out that citizens get to vote on the tax hike, so “it’s not being shoved down your throat.”
“Sometimes you got to bite the bullet,” said DeBerry, calling for the public to sacrifice to help firefighters who “put their lives on the line.”