By SHELLY WILKISON
Commissioners of the Williamson County Emergency Services District #4 say they will not change the tax rate in the new fiscal year, but some property owners in the fire district may pay more in taxes due to an increase in their property value.
At the current tax rate of $0.10, the ESD is projecting $1,270,802 in property tax revenue to fund the bulk of a proposed $1.4 million spending plan.
The proposal is about $98,000 higher in Maintenance & Operations primarily due to a 2 percent step pay increase for employees, increased payroll taxes and insurance.
For the first time, employees will also be eligible for sick time. Currently, an employee has to use vacation time when he or she is sick and unable to come to work.
The spending proposal also includes increased allocations for firefighter training.
Chief Mark McAdams said the department has several needs that have large pricetags. Among those are a new fire engine, replacements for air bottles worn by firefighters, radio communication equipment and an extractor that will allow soiled bunker gear to be cleaned on site — saving about $7,000 annually on cleaning that is currently outsourced. About six sets of bunker gear are also needed.
With more than $956,000 in its Fund Balance, Commissioners are considering spending a portion of that on a major purchase in an attempt to reduce debt and interest payments. Chief McAdams was asked to make some recommendations for the best use of about $200,000 out of the fund balance.
“There are things I think we can do,” said Board President Dean Andrews. “There gets to be a point in time when the fund balance tops out and we should have three months operating expense there. We have greater needs than to decrease our tax rate.”
Commissioner Emory Martin said the fund balance should serve as a rainy day fund.
“I like the idea of spending the money and getting down to the three-month balance,” he said.
McAdams estimated three months of operating expenses would be about $300,000.
Commissioners will discuss McAdams’ recommendations regarding the fund balance when they meet for a public hearing on the budget at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 17. At that time, the tax rate will also be set.
By state law, the tax rate for emergency services districts is capped at $0.10 per $100 property value. Andrews noted that the effective tax rate of $0.101136 (the rate that would generate the same tax revenue as last year) and the rollback rate of $0.107 (the highest rate that can be set before taxpayers can start rollback procedures) are both over the legal cap of $0.10.
For some time, Commissioners have been discussing the need for a new fire engine. Estimated at $550,000, they say the equipment is needed to serve as a backup to the district’s one engine.
Chief McAdams told The Independent that although the Board has not taken a vote to make the purchase official, the proposed budget includes funding for epenses that would be associated with costs of operation. Once approved, the purchase will be financed and it will take one year to take delivery on the vehicle.
The new budget does reflect cuts made in some areas. McAdams said among those cuts is about $900 from fire prevention, which included the Clown Brigade fire prevention and safety show that was presented annually to young children.
“I’m amazed and proud of the ESD for being able to maintain this level of professionalism on a $0.10 tax rate,” said McAdams.
After the meeting, McAdams told The Independent that growth in the fire district will place increasing demands on Liberty Hill first responders in the coming years.
While not part of this year’s budget, he said the time is quickly approaching when an additional firefighter will be needed on each shift. He said to improve coverage and for officer safety, the department really needs five to a shift right now, but he doesn’t believe funds are available. Currently, every shift has four firefighters.
While the ESD Board may consider applying for a grant that would fund a firefighter for three years, McAdams said the deadline to qualify for fiscal 2012 has likely passed.
He projected that an additional station in the fire district may be needed by 2017.
While response times average about 7.4 minutes in and out of Liberty Hill, it is becoming more common for WCESD #4 to have to call on neighboring departments to assist and provide cover when local firefighters are on calls.
Also Thursday, the Board learned that the ESD’s ISO rating has dropped since the last rating was assessed six years ago. Chief McAdams said the rating by the Insurance Services Organization serves as a guide for insurance companies setting rates for customers. The proximity of a residence or business to a fire station, a fire hyrdrant, trained firefighting personnel and equipment are factors in determining insurance premiums.
“As (water) systems improve throughout the area, our rates will improve,” McAdams said, adding that the Liberty Hill station serves an area of 140 square miles.
“For an area this size, they (ISO) expect more people to be here,” said Commissioner Sandra Taylor.