WCESD #4 addresses concerns about sales tax
By Christine Bolaños
Nineteen people attended a town hall meeting hosted by Williamson County ESD #4 to address taxpayers’ concerns about the proposed 1 cent sales tax — an issue voters will decide on Nov. 3.
According to fire department officials, if passed, the sales tax would generate about $300,000 in revenue that could go toward building a new fire station.
Vocal attendees questioned whether an increased sales tax is the answer to meeting the growing community’s emergency services needs. Some said they believe the additional property tax revenue brought on by new homeowners could be enough to tackle growth. Others stated the state’s cap of 10 cents per $100 property valuation means Texas thinks that is all the emergency services district needs.
The town hall meeting lasted about 90 minutes and included about a 20-minute presentation from Fire Chief Anthony Lincoln followed by questions from the public, which were answered by both the Chief and ESD Commissioners. All commissioners with the exception of Dan Clark were present.
Before explaining their justification for the proposed sales tax bump, Lincoln took a few moments to respond to a letter to the editor published that day in The Independent. The letter, written by Jeanette Hastings, criticized the fire department’s response time and handling of an incident at a football game involving her grandson.
“The response was within protocol,” Lincoln said. “If you’ve ever been on scene you know it does feel like it takes longer.” He then cited growth, response time, wildland fire threat, station/equipment needs and staffing as the driving forces for proposing a sales tax.
Lincoln said fire stations within a five-mile radius usually means lower insurance premiums for homeowners. He also asked attendees to keep in mind that a new fire station means additional budget impacts that should be considered such as utilities, building insurances, building maintenance, station supplies, fuel costs of new apparatus, maintenance on apparatus and vehicle insurance.
“We are not asking for a property tax increase,” he said.
He reminded folks that taxpayers within the Liberty Hill city limits are not eligible to vote in the election because they are already at the 8.25 sales tax maximum. Taxpayers within the fire district but outside city limits are eligible to vote. He said there is 1 ¾ cents available, but commissioners decided to ask for 1 cent of that amount.
Alternatives to the sales tax increase include a reduction in expenditures, which in turn reduces services and a dependency on an increased property tax base.
Lincoln said the ESD works to find alternative revenue sources by applying for grants to aid with staffing or apparatus needs.
“A failure to plan is planning to fail,” he said.
An increase in sales tax, Lincoln said, would result in more services, keep insurance premiums down and keep the fire station’s doors open.
“If we don’t have the funds to do it then it’s going to take longer,” he said. “But Liberty Hill will have to grow in those areas. That’s a given.”
Leslye Pogue, a former administrator at the fire department, had a number of questions.
She asked Lincoln if the ESD continues to receive funding from Williamson County in addition to property tax revenue. He confirmed it does.
She asked if a third party handles the department’s billing which Lincoln confirmed is correct, adding the ESD just contracted with a new company.
“Do you feel the public has been well informed for this?” she asked. “I heard you say one little thing about it tonight that what areas the sales tax is going to affect. It’s going to be built into our services? That’s a question,” Pogue said. “Trash, water, cable?”
Commissioner James Crabtree responded.
“I live outside Liberty Hill and I’m not in favor of the sales tax increase,” he said. “But the way I understand it’ll work is that if you have a business that’s in the ESD they would pay that sales tax.
“Like Smokey Mo’s down here, the gas station on (Highway) 183, they would charge that additional tax if it’s passed by the voters,” Crabtree said. “The people that can vote on it are the people that live in the ESD but not within the Liberty Hill city limits.”
Eric Van Natter, owner of Star of Texas Realty Group, interjected.
“The Chief just said that Dish Network would be billable,” he said, referring to some previously stated comments.
Crabtree said he didn’t know about that.
“My question is if we don’t know, how do we set a tax rate?” Van Natter asked. “How do we set it when we don’t know what the budget is for the new station and all that? How do we know we don’t need a ¼ of a cent versus 1 cent?”
Lincoln said the revenue generated by the sales tax would be a “drop in the hat” compared to the amount it takes to operate a fire station. He described it as just another source of revenue.
“So a $450,000 increase in your budget over the last two years per what you said — that’s almost half a million dollars. That’s a lot of money,” Van Natter pointed out.
Every time property tax has generated more revenue the fire department has added more staff to provide more services, Lincoln responded.
Pogue then questioned ESD Board President Sandra Taylor’s comment at a prior ESD meeting quoted in an article in The Independent. The comment: “If this passes it will set us up in order to back off of the property tax next year,” was made during commissioners’ discussions regarding the proposed sales tax election.
“I suggest that no one in this room is naïve enough to believe that,” Pogue said. “If that’s the case why do we need a sales tax if you’re going to back off of the property tax?”
Taylor said that particular discussion centered on if the ESD has enough revenue from the sales tax then the ESD would possibly be able to slightly lower the property tax rate the following year.
“It wasn’t much, but it would help,” Taylor said. “That’s if we can get the (sales tax increase).
“If we can put together enough money and build the building then when it comes time next year to raise the property tax to cap it out at 10 cents we’ll look at trying not to,” Taylor said.
Pogue said that process of thought did not make sense to her when the new station is planning to be built in 2017. Taylor said it was just a perception shared during a discussion.
Pogue asked if the fire department offered anything besides fire and EMS protection. Lincoln confirmed the department offers CPR classes to the public, teaches fire prevention in public schools — and though there had not been one in several years — commissioners said the department hosted an open house last year.
She also asked if the department has a victim’s assistance/crisis intervention via Williamson County, which Lincoln said the ESD is not a part of.
“Do you provide public service such as unlocking vehicles, welfare concerns, funeral processions, any of those things,” Pogue asked.
He said the ESD does not do funeral processions other than stand-bys and does not unlock vehicles due to liability concerns.
She asked about average number of calls per month and how many of those are medical emergencies.
“We have about 105-107 calls a month and those generate about 60-65 percent medical calls,” Lincoln reported.
She followed by asking if the doors to the fire station remain locked.
“They still are,” Lincoln said. “If somebody comes in they need to ring the doorbell or dial 9-1-1. Because we’re not always in the station, too.”
Pogue asked if the department actively recruits volunteers and, if so, how many.
“We have about eight and are in the process of recruiting some more,” he responded. “We’re a combination fire department. We have 12 fire fighters. And we have what we call part-timers that work as needed and we also have volunteers.”
Pogue suggested that before the ESD moves forward with the proposed sales tax election that it try to gain some of the public’s trust back.
“And maybe righting some of the wrongs the ESD has been a part of,” she added. “Do I think another station is needed? I absolutely do. That, and the idea of the sales tax, were in the works way before any of you were a part of Liberty Hill.
“I think your strategic planning and your long-term planning goals need to be put out to the public instead of behind closed doors,” she continued.
Lincoln said that information is now available online.
“As of right now I would definitely not support a sales tax,” she said.
Lincoln said that is why the ESD hosted the town hall. “So everyone can get the information they need,” he said.
Another attendee asked how many structure fires the department puts out every year.
“It’s going to be less than 1 percent,” Lincoln responded.
Van Natter brought up Taylor’s comment about possibly slightly lowering the property tax rate if the sales tax increase is approved by voters.
“I don’t know about you but 10 percent of my budget is not an insignificant number,” he pointed out. “I don’t think that’s a realistic statement that she’s making to expect us to increase a sales tax and then be able to turn around and be able to pull back another tax.
“That doesn’t happen,” he said. “Once you got it, you got it. You’re going to spend it somewhere. If I’m not mistaken the reality of pulling back another tax … that’s not happening so let’s just be realistic about what we’re telling people if we’re not real sure of.”
He continued citing his concerns and Taylor responded.
“What the discussion was and I apologize if I’m coming off inaccurately,” Taylor said. “The discussion was we’re trying to make sure that we have enough money to fund the fire station. No. 1, your health, your welfare and your property are our no. 1 concerns.
“If we can get by not having the 10 cent cap (property tax rate) we will, but that’s not my decision,” Taylor continued. “It has to go through the whole (board of commissioners) … When you look at the sales tax overall, people that come through Liberty Hill will be paying that as well. The burden, we’ll get extra money, from outside of our district, which to me helps us in the long run because we’re running calls (from) people who don’t live in our district.”
Van Natter asked for the ESD to explain further.
“If that tax doesn’t take place inside the city limits, which is where commercial is, how are people traveling from the inside in going to be paying on that tax,” he asked. “If they do it’s going to be very minute.”
Crabtree said Taylor was referring to businesses outside city limits but within the ESD such as the gas station and the restaurants. “That’s potential sales tax revenue,” he said.
Van Natter said he wasn’t convinced the commissioners were all on the same page about where the potential sales tax revenue would be coming from. “And that’s concerning to me,” he said.
Another taxpayer asked that the ESD post its budget online moving forward. Lincoln said the ESD can do so as it just posted its strategic plan and other information online.
Bottom line, commissioners who support the sales tax increase said they do not believe property tax will be enough to fund a new fire station.
“If we don’t start building fire stations now we’re just going to fall behind,” Commissioner James Baker said.
“We expect there may be five fire stations within the next 20 years,” Lincoln added.
“The people you’re selling houses to are going to expect fire protection for their areas,” Baker told Van Natter. “And we have no guarantee the economy is going to continue to grow at this rate. That’s how the funding could be reduced later. If the growth slowed down we could back it off then.
“Do we not need to look ahead?” Baker asked.
“I think $450,000 in a two-year period is looking ahead,” Van Natter responded, referring the additional revenue coming in from increased property taxes.
Baker encouraged taxpayers to attend ESD meetings. Van Natter said he does not know when the meetings are and asked where that information is posted.
Commissioners said that information is posted on the bulletin board outside the fire station, at the Williamson County Courthouse in Georgetown and in the newspaper.
WCESD #4 staff were also in attendance as well as Cliff Avery of GCP Associates, which the ESD contracted with to help inform the public about the election.
According to a pamphlet sent to voters by mail and distributed at the meeting, the district identified the need for a new fire station in 2017 to service areas in the eastern portion of the ESD, including Santa Rita and Cimarron Hills communities. Future plans also include a third station on County Road 200 and the Clear Water Ranch subdivision with a possible 2021 opening.
Per the material, each station and its equipment would cost $3 million-plus, with staffing adding another approximate $650,000 per year.
Lincoln closed out the meeting by quickly summarizing earlier comments made followed by applause from the public.
“A lot of this has been going on for a long time,” Lincoln said. “This growth isn’t new. We’re looking back at things that we looked at 10-15 years ago and they’re just now starting to fall in place.
“Planning has been done for a long time,” he said. “Long before me. Now when you start trying to do it, it comes down to it costs money, so what can you afford to do.”
The next regular ESD board meeting is scheduled for Monday, Oct. 19 at the fire station.