In theory, an emergency services district is a great idea. It levies a relatively small property tax, and the revenues are used to upgrade the equipment and facilities of local volunteer fire departments. Those departments are no longer dependent on donations and chili cook-offs for their funding. The benefit to the property owners comes in both better fire protection and lower homeowner insurance rates (eventually).
But in practice, ESD No. 2 has been a troubled entity since its creation in a November 2006 election, with internal conflicts among departments and board members, and a lack of accountability to the voters.
For the departments, it proved to be a difficult transition from being volunteer, non-profit agencies to being taxpayer-funded entities. Most scrambled to provide even rudimentary budgets in that first year, and many had trouble coming up with receipts for purchases. It has taken several years for the ESD to develop policies, procedures and a long-term plan.
The next step is to ensure the board members are directly accountable to the voters.
As County Commissioner Terry Phillips observed, without an elected board, the ESD is practicing “taxation without representation.”
“Once we appoint them, we have no control over them,” he noted. “They can only be removed for malfeasance of office. This way they are answerable to the electorate.”
Some have worried that elections would “compromise” board members, by forcing them to raise money for campaigns. But that’s true of any elected position, from the U.S. president on down to the local school board. The trade-off — direct accountability — is worth it.
ESD No. 2 Board President Randy Melton warned of politicizing the board.
“I’m just an average citizen trying to do something for the community,” he said. “We just want to run the district like a business and accomplish our mission of providing fire service for rural Smith County. I’m not a politician.”
It’s true that serving as a board member is a thankless job, and those who do so deserve our respect and appreciation.
But they still wield significant power over Smith County property owners. Failure to pay the tax can result in the seizure of property. And board members oversee the spending of millions of dollars of taxpayer money.
Every taxing entity should be directly accountable to the voters. We hope the Legislature agrees.