Math error delays vote on fire budget

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By SHELLY WILKISON

A board member’s discovery of a mathematical error in the proposed budget for the Williamson County Emergency Services District #4 sent administrators back to the drawing table Monday with directives to return with corrections, as well as the impact on operations of a lower tax rate.

ESD Commissioners were scheduled to adopt a $2.5 million budget and set the tax rate Monday, but Commissioner James Crabtree found that the numbers didn’t add up.

In a column that was intending to show the difference between the fiscal 2016 proposed budget and the current year’s budget. The document reported the difference was $661,823.03 more than the current year, when the actual difference was $672,488.60 — $10,665.57 higher.

“If the bottom line is off on that, I don’t feel comfortable on the rest of the math,” said Crabtree. “I don’t think anyone intended to have fuzzy math, but I’m apprehensive when the bottom line is increasing. I don’t know if there are any other errors. We just got this at the beginning of the meeting, so I don’t know if there are any other mistakes. I don’t want mistakes on a budget before we approve it.”

Crabtree noted that the budget documents under consideration Monday had been modified from those the Board reviewed and discussed at the last meeting. Commissioners saw the new documents for the first time Monday. Copies were being made and placed at members’ desks as they arrived.

Fire Chief Anthony Lincoln did not have an explanation as to why the math was incorrect.

“This one (budget version) is asking for a 37 percent increase (over fiscal 2015), and that is huge,” Crabtree said. “We just had a sales tax election that is supposed to give us another $300,000 in revenue, property taxes continue to increase. The whole thing makes me very apprehensive.”

Newly-appointed Commissioner Keith Bright questioned why the tax rate was proposed at $0.10 per $100 property value at a time when property values are up, new construction is up, and more people are moving into the fire district.

By state law, emergency service districts are capped at the ad valorem rate of $0.10 per $100 property value.

Commissioners discussed the possibility of dropping the rate to the rollback rate of $0.096124 per $100 value. The rollback rate is the highest rate the ESD can set before taxpayers could begin rollback proceedings.

Bright said reducing the tax rate by such a minimal amount would not help taxpayers, who would likely not notice the difference.

“If we have the freedom to roll back, let’s do it at something that makes sense to the public,” he said.

“My thoughts are that if there’s ever going to be an opportunity to roll back ESD tax it’s when property is going sky high, growth is sky high and new sales tax is on board — I can’t think of a better time to roll back taxes,” Bright said.

Crabtree noted that if the Board adopts the rollback rate, the ESD will still see a 6.2 percent increase in revenue from property taxes over the current fiscal year.

“That was my frustration in getting these new numbers. In the last meeting, you (Chief Lincoln) had it laid out where we could do everything you wanted to do, not touching the $300,000 from sales tax projections.”

Lincoln said the proposed budget is reflective of a 19 percent growth in the tax base.

He said total revenue includes $300,000 from the reserve fund that will be rolled over as unused funds from the current year.

Commissioner Dan Clark asked Lincoln to produce a new budget worksheet that showed the impact on operations if the ad valorem rate is reduced to the rollback rate. Bright requested the Chief show the impact of a $0.09 rate, a $0.08 rate and even a $0.07 rate.

“You would lose money from revenue, and have to come up with more,” Lincoln said when asked how a lower tax rate would impact the department.

“Or, make cuts,” Crabtree said.

“Yes, or make cuts,” Lincoln responded.

“If you go less than $0.09 (per $100 value), we will be laying people off,” Lincoln said.

“It ($0.96) just seems like a bogus roll back,” Bright said. “But I don’t want to lay anyone off.”

The effective tax rate — the rate that would generate the same revenues as last year on properties taxed in both years — is $0.090476 per $100 property value. Tax calculation documents produced by Williamson County Tax Office shows that if the Board adopted the effective tax rate, revenues would increase by $136,447 over the current budget year.

Board members agreed to call an emergency meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 14. However, The Independent was notified Tuesday morning that the meeting would be 6:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 19. The budget must be adopted and the tax rate set by Sept. 30. The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Prior to the discussion on the proposed operating budget, Lincoln walked commissioners through the projected costs of opening new fire stations in the coming years.

Station #2, which is scheduled to open in 2017-2018 on 2.5 acres at Santa Rita Ranch, currently has a $1.2 million price tag.

Station #3, which may open in 2020-2021, is to be located on CR 200 near Clear Water Ranch. The need for Station #4 is anticipated to be 2025-2016 and may be located on U.S. Highway 183 and FM 3405.

Lincoln said he tried to think of every possible expense that would be involved in setting up a new fire station and provided the Board with a list of those projected expenses.

He said Station #2, which is in the design stage, will have three firefighters per shift or nine personnel total. Additional apparatus will be required along with related expenses.

“This will be the hardest station to open, going from one to two. It will be a 50 percent increase in what we’re doing,” he said, estimating that startup costs will be less when the third and fourth stations are opened.

Lincoln said projections from the County show anticipated sales tax revenue could reach $278,000 in the next fiscal year. He said of that estimated total, $250,000 will be spent opening Station #2.

In November 2015, voters in the fire district approved a 1/4 cent sales tax on goods and services purchased in the fire district. The WCESD #4 fire district mirrors the Liberty Hill school district boundaries.

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