Voters give nod to ESD sales tax increase

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By Christine Bolaños

In a close vote Tuesday, voters approved increasing the sales tax by 1 cent to help fund the Williamson County Emergency Services District #4.

Voters within Liberty Hill city limits were not eligible to vote in the ESD election as they were already at the sales tax maximum.

Fire officials have said the estimated $300,000 in revenue will help support two new fire stations, one at Ronald Reagan Boulevard near Santa Rita Ranch, and the other on CR 200 northwest of Liberty Hill.

Unofficial voting results showed 582 votes (53.39 percent) in favor of the sales tax while 508 (46.61 percent) voted against Prop 1.

Voting results by precinct were not available as of press time Wednesday night.

Williamson County officials said further data will be posted online in the Elections tab at www.wilco.org.

“The election did only pass by a projected 74 votes on the county website and that is not a strong statement from the voters. But it is a positive result for the growth that is taking place in the WCESD No. 4 jurisdiction,” Fire Chief Anthony Lincoln said in an emailed statement Wednesday afternoon.

The sales tax election had been a main topic of discussion at a number of ESD meetings over the last few months. Citizens expressed concerns and asked questions at a town hall meeting the ESD hosted prior to the election. The ESD also sent out informational fliers via US Mail. Taxpayers in turn expressed their opposition or support via letters to the editor in the newspaper or comments on social media.

Fire officials said that if the election was unsuccessful, the ESD would have to find alternative sources such as grant funding to take care of staffing or apparatus needs. In turn, an increase in sales tax, could result in more services, keep insurance premiums down and ensure the fire station’s doors remain open.

The ESD contracted with GCP Associates to help inform the public about the election. The ESD Board allocated $30,000 to pay for the campaign that was to be educational in nature, rather than persuasive.

Lincoln could not say by press time whether the firefighters employees union formed a political action committee for their campaign expenditures and if those expenses were reported to the Texas Ethics Commission.

Campaign signs posted within the ESD did not contain the state-required Right of Way disclaimer for all political signs, yet the signs appeared in the public right of way. Lincoln could not say why those who posted the signs did not follow the law.

A major concern expressed by taxpayers is that they did not see a concrete plan on how the additional revenue generated by the sales tax would be spent.

However, Lincoln pointed out, plans are included in the ESD’s strategic plan, “a living, breathing document.”

“The Strategic Plan indicates the projected cost of opening the next station,” Lincoln said via email. “None of these costs are included in our operating budget. The first cost that we will see will be the architectural work, which is projected at $335,000 and that expenditure has not been funded yet.

“It could be rolled into the project or paid for outright,” he explained.

“We do know that we did not receive a grant for any staffing and that cost will be absorbed by the ESD. We will be applying again next year for the additional staffing grant.”

Fire officials previously cited growth, response time, wildland fire threat, station/equipment needs and staffing as the driving forces for proposing the sales tax.

Though a close call, Lincoln said the election results are not unique to Liberty Hill’s ESD.

“I think when people see the word ‘tax’ they tend to vote ‘no’ and be against anything associated to that action,” he said in the email.

“This same type of vote failed in WCESD No. 5 Jarrell on the same ballot.”

Lincoln said the ESD continuously works to serve its taxpayers at a high standard and always considers their feedback.

“As an organization we are always concerned about how the public views our actions,” Lincoln wrote in the email. “Tough decisions have to be made when you are in a high growth area. Those decisions may not always be popular, but they have to be made.”

However, he said, he hopes leaders will continue focused on the future, and the growth that is sure to come along with it.

“As this area grows it will be nice to know that our leaders continue to look for ways to improve and provide better services to our citizens and taxpayers,” he wrote.

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