House Bill 3257, filed by Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, would make the five-person, volunteer Emergency Services District No.1 and No. 2 boards elected positions. By law, board members are appointed by county commissioners for two-year terms.
ESD No. 1 includes Lindale Fire Department and collects just under 6 cents per $100 valuation, or $639,000 in 2012. ESD No. 2 includes Arp, Bullard, Chapel Hill, Dixie, Flint-Gresham, Jackson Heights, Noonday, Red Springs, Troup, Whitehouse and Winona volunteer fire departments and collected more than $4 million from taxpayers in 2012 based on a property tax rate of 8.46 cents per $100 valuation.
County commissioners unanimously signed a resolution to support making boards an elected body because ESDs are taxing entities similar to school boards. They say making board members accountable to voters is fundamental check-and-balance for an entity that sets tax rates and collects and spends taxpayer money.
But after five years of turmoil and turnover within ESD No. 2 district, some fire officials wonder if past controversies and the cost of campaigning would discourage qualified candidates from running.
Schaefer could not be reached for comment but an email from his staff said the bill was designed to make the taxing entities directly accountable to voters. The legislation is specific to the ESDs in Smith County, not across the state.
County Judge Joel Baker said the controversy surrounding ESD No. 2 may have raised the question but that it is not driving the court’s position. He said the district is “headed in the right direction” because of the recent hiring of a district director and work being done by board members to consolidate debt and assets and set standard policies.
“To be a true representative board they should be elected,” he said.
County Commissioner Terry Phillips, who has regularly attended ESD No. 2 meetings, said he views the current situation “taxation without representation.” Even though commissioners appoint members, there is little oversight authority written within the law, he said.
“Once we appoint them, we have no control over them. They can only be removed for malfeasance of office,” he said. “This way they are answerable to the electorate.”
But the electoral process has some fire officials concerned.
Flint-Gresham Fire Department Assistant Fire Chief Keith Tate said he sees the positives in having members directly accountable to voters but worries elections would stymie participation and possibly stack membership in favor of interest groups.
Tate said it could further politicize the district’s activities.
“There’s more money to be raised by people avoiding taxes rather than those ready to pay for fire services,” he said.
Turnover could be another problem, if board members are elected and choose to leave before their term expires, he said. More than a dozen members have resigned positions on ESD No. 2 since its inception, with several citing frustrations with oversight and internal conflicts between members and departments as the reason.
Tate said he doesn’t know whether he would support or oppose the bill as it is but he believes the legislation is directed at ESD No. 2.
Annie Baldwin, the volunteer clerk and a founding board member for ESD No. 1, said campaigns would cost the individuals running, and elections cost the districts. She said campaigning every two years would discourage participation.
Ms. Baldwin said her district has faced less controversy because it is a single-department district.
“I can see why they would want to get (ESD No. 2) off their backs,” she said. “Looking at it from our point of view we would have fewer people interested in serving if they have to be elected.”
ESD No. 2 Board President Randy Melton agreed and said he would not run if it meant asking for campaign donations. Melton is a retired Tyler police officer and an adjunct criminal justice professor at Tyler Junior College.
Melton said he believes county commissioners are requesting the legislation to “avoid the phone calls and complaints” regarding ESD No. 2. He said the selection process implemented by county commissioners, which requires a committee to screen, interview and recommend appointees is working and that the board is working with departments as a watchdog for taxpayers in a civil, cooperative manner.
Melton, Tate and Ms. Baldwin said they and their respective departments had not been contacted for input regarding the bill.
Commissioners also have requested state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, carry similar legislation for passage.