ESD budget grows with expansion

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

Williamson County ESD #4 has brought its second station online, which means additional debt, additional staffing, and additional operations costs for the new fiscal year.

But because of continued growth in property and sales tax revenues, the ESD Board chose to keep the tax rate the same as the past three years, according to Fire Chief Anthony Lincoln, voting 3-1 to maintain the property tax rate at $0.09825 per $100 valuation.

Board Vice President James Baker made a motion to increase the tax rate to the maximum allowed of $0.10 per $100 valuation, but the motion died for a lack of a second.

“Each of the last two years, we forfeited $300,000 each year that we could have collected if we had gone with the 10-cent rate,” Baker said. “There’s a lot of things we could have done with $600,000. I think we would much better serve the ESD if we collected the 10 cents, and wouldn’t it be nice if we used that $600,000 for debt reduction or so many other places that could be used?”

Following Baker’s motion, the motion was made by Commissioner Keith Bright to maintain the current rate.

The difference in annual property taxes between the two rates on a home valued at $200,000 is $3.50.

“The tax rate is the same it’s been for three years now,” Lincoln said. “Commissioner Baker wanted to raise it to the dime, but couldn’t get the second to do that.”

On the staffing side of the budget, the ESD will raise salaries by $1,000, to bring the starting salary up to $46,000.

“We’ve worked real hard to bring us up to where we are today,” Lincoln said. “As we move up, everyone else moves up. We’re at $45,000 starting pay now, we’re not 100 percent of these others, but we’re within reaching distance. I’m afraid if we don’t do something to stay up with what’s going on around us we’ll fall behind pretty quick.”

In addition to raises, the ESD plans to address its overtime dilemma, created by constant staffing, by adding three new positions for the upcoming budget.

Nine were added last year, six of which are being covered primarily by a SAFER Grant awarded last year.

The total annual cost for the six new firefighters, including benefits, is $356,226. The grant will pay $267,170 of that in year one and two, leaving the ESD to cover $89,056 in those years. In the third year, the grant pays only $124,680 and the ESD covers $231,546.

The addition of three more this year will be covered financially through a reduction in overtime because the regular staffing will be increased.

“In order for someone to be off, and we have 11 people on per day, we have to pay somebody to come back in and work,” Lincoln said. “Our overtime budget now, based on the people we have and the benefit time they have, is at about $541,000.”

With the overtime budget growing each year, Lincoln said the time was finally right to add staff rather than increase overtime further.

“We’ve been watching it for three years, it just wasn’t right,” he said. “I do an analysis every year of benefits, time people have, how much they cost me with all the special projects, then we make that decision.”

The ESD has recently put the first four-person engine company permanently in Station #2 at Santa Rita.

With the new station comes increased debt and operating costs due to the second station and the recent purchase of land for a third station. The total staff for the ESD is now up to 33, from 12 back in 2014.

A pair of notable equipment upgrades are in the budget for this year, the first being a switch from Toughbook laptop computers in vehicles to iPads.

“There’s more versatility, they can take them out, use them to take pictures,” Lincoln said. “The newer programs work better off of those.”

The second is a boat for the ESD, which Lincoln said runs just under $30,000 and will help with swift water rescues and give the ESD the ability to assist other area agencies as well.

The ESD has applied for a grant through Firehouse Subs, so there may be no cost for the addition, but they will not know until likely November.

Despite the recent purchase of land for Station #3 on the west end of the district, Lincoln doesn’t anticipate any funds in this year’s budget being earmarked for engineering or design on the future third station.

“The good thing is we aren’t planning to do a whole lot, which will let us catch up,” Lincoln said, specifically referencing plans for Fire Station #3. “We won’t spend any capital money on it. We know where the lot is, we’ve been out on it, we know the layout of it and we may start looking at what we can do on it. It’s the same thing we did with Station #2, long before we sent it to the architects we looked at what we wanted and made a priority list.”

It will be located on CR 201, just west of Clearwater Ranch, where the subdivision exits onto CR 201.

The property was purchased for $325,000, though the original asking price was $400,000.

The third station will be smaller, likely designed to house four personnel with two truck bays.

“It’s never going to be but a one-company station,” Lincoln said. “(Station #2) was designed to handle an engine and a truck company and an EMS unit. You have to have those strategically placed because you’re going to grow and that call volume is going to require that there. Then we will do something probably west of here big like that.”

The debt service on Station #2 is $340,000 annually, along with payments on the new engine, equipment for added staffing and ongoing utility and maintenance costs.

The budget plans for the increased operations costs for the new station, but Lincoln said the numbers are only good estimates.

“What you don’t know is just how much in utilities that building uses,” Lincoln said. “We’re hoping we’re pretty close in our utilities anyway. A lot of these things are just outright projections,” Lincoln said of the operations costs for Station #2. “Based on what we know about (Station #1) we’re assuming hopefully that building will be close to the same in costs.”

The budget is covered by property taxes and sales tax, which has averaged $60,000 per month this year.

At the proposed tax rate, a property valued at $200,000 would pay $196.50 in ESD taxes.

The ESD has public hearings set for Aug. 19 and 26 with budget adoption on Sept. 9.

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