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Sabine fire department petitions for tax funding

By by Reese Gordon rgordon@news-journal.com
July 16, 2013 at 10 p.m.


LIBERTY CITY - When the ice machine at the EZ Mart Store off FM 1252 caught on fire this past year, manager Tammy Hines knew exactly who to call.

The Sabine Volunteer Fire Department arrived in minutes, Hines said, quickly extinguishing the blaze. She credits the firefighters with saving the store.

Now, members of the volunteer fire department are asking for help from residents who live in their service area.

Sabine Volunteer Fire Department Chief Richard Sisk said Tuesday the department is circulating petitions to call an election to create the second Gregg County Emergency Services District with taxing authority. Elderville Volunteer Fire Department in Lakeport is the only other ESD in Gregg County.

Sisk, who took over as chief in January, said the department has been trying to create an ESD for two years. The process officially started six to eight months ago, he said.

Historically, the Sabine VFD has operated on donations from the community as well as the Longview Bingo Center, but that's just not enough, Sisk said.

Going forward, the volunteer fire department believes it has no choice but to seek tax revenue for operations.

Sisk is proposing creation of Gregg County ESD No. 2, which would levy a tax of 3 cents per $100 valuation.

Hines, who says she has nothing but praise for members of the volunteer fire department, supports the petition.

"What's three cents on $100 when we're going to benefit from better service?" Hines asked. "In a little community like this, we need these firefighters."

Sisk said the Sabine VFD receives about $60,000 annually in donations.

If the ESD is created, it would generate an estimated annual budget of $160,000, he said.

"The community has taken really good care of us," he said. "Donations get you by barely, but as far as increasing and maintaining equipment to get the job done, financially we are just not able to do that."

Sisk said the Sabine VFD has 23 firefighters and seven vehicles to fight fires, including two fire engines.

In order to call an election, the firefighters must collect signatures from 10 percent of the registered voters who cast ballots in the last gubernatorial election.

Sisk said Tuesday the firefighters had collected 100 signatures - enough, he believes, to call the election once the signatures are verified by elections officials.

"I have the signatures needed in order to put it up to the commissioners court for approval," he said. "We're hoping to have (tax increase vote) on the November ballot.

The first step in the process, said Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt, is for the fire department to create a map that defines the district.

Sisk said that boundaries of the proposed district extend from one mile south of Texas 31 to Arrow Creek off Texas 135, which would represent the northern line of the district.

Sisk said the district would extend from the Smith County line to Kilgore and the Sabine River.

Volunteer fire departments across the state have struggled since 2011 when wildfires ravaged the state, wearing out rural fire equipment - at the same time the Texas Legislature curtailed grants and funding.

That had little effect on Sabine VFD, Sisk said, because that department never relied on grants.

"You can apply for grants all day long," he said. "You cannot operate a fire department off grants alone. In order to get grants, you have to apply a year ahead of time. You may wait a year to try and get a grant and find out you didn't get it. If you rely on grants to run your fire department, you are setting yourself up for failure."

The creation of a taxing district, Sisk said, would benefit homeowners in the long term by improving the district's ISO rating, which eventually should reduce homeowner's insurance premiums.

The ISO rating, used nationally to determine insurance premiums, is also a factor in determining whether fire departments can compete for funding.

Improving the ISO rating would help the district qualify for funding. Without that funding, a district cannot afford to buy the kind of equipment that would enhance the rating, he said.

"If we get the homeowner's insurance rating down over the next several years, we can give that money back to the community," he said.

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