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Western Gregg County could face tax vote to start new emergency services district

By Glenn Evans
July 21, 2014 at 11 p.m.

Taxpayers in western Gregg County will get a chance to speak out on whether to tax themselves for fire protection during a public hearing next month.

County commissioners Monday called for a public hearing after accepting a petition signed by 106 registered voters who are property owners in the proposed district. If an election is called for Nov. 4, as proponents hope, all registered voters may cast ballots.

Voter approval would create the county's second Emergency Services District, a sister to one serving the Elderville area south of Longview.

The hearing, set for 6 p.m. Aug. 11 in the Liberty City Community Building, will seek input on establishing a 5-cent tax to bring the 12-firefighter, all-volunteer department more in line with a growing community, Chief Richard Sisk said.

"The community's growing," he said. "We've got a new elementary school being built out here. I counted 12 residential homes being built. You can see people doing dirt work."

Sisk, who has been chief two years, said community support exists to establish the roughly 10-by-12-mile district.

The petition presented Monday was the result of proponents' third drive after earlier mistakenly allowing non-property owners to sign, then missing a deadline by two days in 2013.

"The response from the community is overwhelming," Sisk said. "When we missed the deadline last year, I've had community members calling me since then, asking when we're going to do this."

The department's two fire engines are going on 28 and 29 years old, he said. The department also has two tanker trucks and two grassfire trucks.

"We have the capability, but the problem is we're just maintaining equipment," he said. "We should not have to sacrifice the safety of the firefighter to save the community."

Gregg County Elections Administrator Kathryn Nealy told commissioners an Aug. 11 public hearing would put the issue on track to be added to Liberty City area ballots for the Nov. 4 general election.

The Commissioners Court will decide after the public hearing whether the request is worthy of a spot on that ballot.

"You have the authority to determine whether or not it is justified," she told commissioners.

Sisk, who worked Monday and could not attend the commissioners' meeting, said he is confident homeowners would agree to the district and tax rate. A 5-cent tax per $100 property value brings a $50 annual tax increase with no exemptions claimed.

He added the area has high home insurance rates under the lowest and next-to-lowest ratings. The district would equip the community to challenge those poor ratings within two or three years, he said.

"The average homeowner can save hundreds of dollars a year on their homeowner insurance," he said.

Volunteer fire departments statewide are being challenged by their own aging equipment and the need for training, phenomena highlighted by a Texas wildfire epidemic in 2011.

Rusk County voters approved a referendum in 2013 that increased their Emergency Service District tax rate from 3 cents to 7 cents in order to support 16 volunteer departments there.

Needs of volunteer departments are aggravated by the annual diversion of a roughly $90 million fund intended for them. Taken from home insurers' premiums, that dedicated tax has been diverted by lawmakers to help balance the last two state budgets.

"It's just flat wrong to tax Texans for rural fire department training and then not appropriate those monies for those people that put their lives on the line to protect our lives and our property," said Texas Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, a critic of the budget gimmick. "I'm not generally in favor of having more taxing entities. But that's a local decision, and I'm not going to tell them what to do."



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