JoAnn Fleming, executive director of Grassroots America — We the People, said during the commissioners court meeting that the entities may be liable for allowing Bullard Fire Department to act as a first responder inside Cherokee County without reimbursement to Smith County taxpayers.
Mrs. Fleming said taxpayers have paid more than $1.4 million to the Bullard Fire Department since 2007. She said all the entities have a fiduciary responsibility to the Smith County taxpayers.
State law requires entities to reimburse the use of taxpayer assets and money.
“I want everyone to get emergency services, but it’s not appropriate for one taxing entity to use assets and tax dollars in another county without consideration for taxpayers,” she said.
Cherokee County pays Bullard and Troup fire departments $22,836 annually for mutual aid and has done so since the district’s 2007 inception. However, the departments kept the money rather than reimburse the district.
Earlier this year, ESD board members approached Troup and Bullard fire officials regarding the reimbursements. Troup agreed to begin reimbursement. Bullard has not, and during a Dec. 20 ESD meeting, the board gave the department two options — stop providing first responder service to Cherokee County or reimburse the district $50,000 annually — or face termination of their contract.
Bullard Fire Department Fire Chief Keith Newburn said by phone later that he was never asked to reimburse the money paid by Cherokee County until the board made the request. He said he offered to forward the Cherokee County payments to the ESD but was told the department should pay $50,000 per year to respond to out-of-county calls.
Former ESD No. 2 board member Brian Bateman came prepared to present a 47-page report, which chronicled the investigation into the costs of cross-county-line emergency responses. He said the investigation showed 25 percent of Bullard’s emergency responses were made outside Smith County.
He calculates Smith County taxpayers have subsidized Cherokee County fire protection with more than $300,000 since 2007.
On Dec. 27, county commissioners reversed a vote two weeks prior to reappoint Bateman. Board member Robert Dear addressed the court Tuesday and said the court has “interfered” with the board’s ability to hold the departments accountable.
“By undercutting your own appointees you are telling other board members that they will be removed if you don’t get your way,” he said.
Dear said it also sends a message to departments that complaining to the court can prevent the board from holding them accountable.
Former ESD president Mitch Henderson said the court’s actions undermine the board’s recent measures to determine the district’s financial state and add accountability and prevent what he called the “great taxpayer money giveaway.”
In 2012, the ESD board determined the district was responsible for more than $8 million in debt. It receives more than $4 million from taxpayers annually based on a tax rate of 8.46 cents per $100 valuation.
County Commissioner Jeff Warr, who led the decision to reverse its appointment of Bateman, said Bullard should reimburse ESD for using county assets and money to provide services in Cherokee County but that threats to terminate the contract undermined reasonable expectations for services that have been historically provided.
“By its nature, emergency services are different,” he said. “It’s an emergency and residents and their property should know they are being protected.”
Mrs. Fleming said that is true but that any Smith County taxpayer who feels their tax dollars are being misused by operating without compensation could potentially sue. She said all sides of the argument need to negotiate a fair deal that compensates the ESD for use of assets and money and provides first response and mutual aid to affected areas.
“Taxpayers are upholding their end. They pay their taxes, so these people who have the fiduciary responsibility to make sure taxpayers are getting value for their dollar need to handle their end.”