Board member says Smith Co. taxpayers are shortchanged

Published on Tuesday, 6 May 2014 23:30 - Written by Adam Russell, arussell@tylerpaper.com

 

Smith County emergency services’ work outside the county has made money rather than lost it, according to a report.

Emergency Services District No. 2 Chief of Operations Terry Rozell said his look at Cherokee County responses and subsequent costs showed Smith County’s coverage there has been profitable.

A board member assessment of out-of-county costs presented in 2012 said Smith County taxpayers were shorted about $300,000 during seven years. Providing first responder fire and emergency services for Cherokee County has been a contentious subject since.

Rozell said annual call reports for volunteer departments that responded outside the county, and the federal cost scale for various emergency responses — from medical emergencies to wildfires — showed costs were more than covered.

The district comprises 11 volunteer departments — Arp, Bullard, Chapel Hill, Dixie, Flint-Gresham, Jackson Heights, Noonday, Red Springs, Troup, Whitehouse and Winona. The departments are tasked with fire protection and emergency response coverage for rural Smith County.

Respectively, Troup and Bullard fire departments had received $22,836 and $21,780 ($44,616 total) annually from Cherokee County since the district’s inception in 2007. The money now goes directly to the district, which reimburses departments.

Bullard averaged 423 emergency calls from 2011 through 2013, according to the Smith County Fire Marshal’s records. The department averaged 96 responses to Cherokee County during that time, according to the Forest Service.

That means the district was reimbursed $226 per average call for Bullard.

Rozell had no “per-call” cost assessed for those responses but said they would likely be similar to Troup’s expenditures, which were tracked by the state.

Troup’s emergency calls were reported to the Texas A&M Forest Service, which tracked out-of-county responses and attached a “cost,” based on Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursement charts.

Troup averaged 104 trips into Cherokee County during the same time period. The state reported the average annual cost of those calls was $15,545, meaning Troup netted $7,291 from the contract with Cherokee County.

Call costs ranged from $7 for medical responses to $1,708 to fight wildfires.

The chief critic of the district and its annual agreement with Cherokee County, board member Robert Dear, said Rozell’s calculations are low.

“Impossible. It’s not possible to respond to those calls for that low a dollar amount,” he said.

By Dear’s estimate, Cherokee County owes about $50,000 per department annually. He said one quarter of first response calls are answered in Cherokee County and that its taxpayers should be billed for one quarter of the departments’ annual budgets, roughly $200,000.

Dear claims Smith County taxpayers are subsidizing Cherokee County fire protection. The dispute about Cherokee County paying its share has continued since Dear and former board member Brian Bateman led efforts to give Bullard Fire Department an ultimatum over the 2012 Christmas holiday.

At a Dec. 20, 2012 meeting, the board gave Bullard two options for supplying emergency services in Cherokee County — reimburse the district $50,000 per year with $12,500 quarterly payments or stop providing “first responder” services and move to mutual aid only in those areas or “face possible termination of their contract” with the ESD.

Bateman presented a 47-page report chronicling out-of-county responses he estimated had cost Smith County taxpayers $300,000 since 2007.

County commissioners, who appoint the five district board members, revoked Bateman’s reappointment to the board for a decision they felt left Bullard residents who live in Cherokee County without coverage.

Dear has continued to push the matter. In January 2013 Grassroots America — We the People, a local political action committee and watchdog organization, entered the fray and threatened the commissioners court with litigation.

JoAnn Fleming, the group’s executive director, told the court it would act on behalf of Smith County taxpayers to make sure assets and money were being reimbursed fully.

District Board President Randy Melton said Rozell’s numbers were not the “final answer” to the question surrounding out-of-county calls.

But it does present “an entirely new narrative from what we’ve been hearing for two years, that we’re spending an exorbitant amount of money in another county and not being reimbursed,” he said.

Melton said Rozell’s report would become part of the discussion. He said using records from a state agency and following a set reimbursement cost structure over a three-year period helps find “true numbers.”

But, Melton added, there should be considerations for the day-to-day costs of running departments, including utilities, insurance, stations and maintenance. He said it is unfortunate that it is difficult to assess a “true cost of each call” based on available information.

“We want to be accurate about the cost,” he said. “This just gives us something else to consider.”