WCESD#4 Commissioners approve budget, set tax rate in contentious 4-1 vote

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By Christian Betancourt

It was near standing-room only at Monday’s meeting of the Williamson County Emergency Services District Commissioners as the panel met to adopt a budget and set a tax rate.

Both on-duty and off-duty first responders awaited the approval of commissioners on a budget that included a change to the pay scale, which would mean a significant pay increase for some in the new fiscal year.

The only objection to the plan came from board Vice President James Baker, who said the change in the step program was too costly. Previously, the steps were capped at 10 years, but Monday’s vote increased the cap to 20 years.

“I can’t vote to approve this,” said Baker. “I hope I get outvoted. I think that is just insane. I’m sorry, I love you all.”

Fire Chief Anthony Lincoln said about $150,000 in the budget would be used to bring the salaries up of six first responders. The most significant increase would be for one employee, who has been there 18 years. That person will receive a pay increase of $28,000.

“As our tenure has moved up in the organization, we realized we were getting people capped,” Lincoln said. “We started looking at how we compared to similar cities and organizations. We are currently 34 percent of what Hutto is doing. Even under the new step plan, we’re still going to be struggling. We’re still going to be 15 percent behind them.”

Baker addressed Lt. Jeff Foster, who was in the audience. Baker explained he had to do what he believed was right in his heart.

“I’m fully aware of that,” responded Foster. “But you also have to look at these other departments to be able to maintain and keep good people here, and we have to be able to move up the pay and pay them what they deserve. The step plan seems like a lot of big numbers. The majority of the department with that step plan is not getting a huge raise. It’s the people that have been here 10-plus years.”

Baker interrupted Foster stating he worked at FedEx for 20 years and didn’t receive a raise every year.

“We can’t compare to FedEx,” Foster replied.

Baker said he believed the change to the step program would be too costly for the department

“I realize the fire services is different,” rebutted Baker. “I think this is just an awful lot of money all at once. I know we have the money.”

Lincoln explained to the commissioners that the one-time cost of catching up was necessary to compete with pay scales in the area.

“It’s a lot to absorb at one time, but that happens when you move into a new step plan,” he said.

WCESD Treasurer Keith Bright asked if there was a way to spread the cost over a couple of years instead of taking the hit all at once.

“Don’t stop the schedule, but I wonder if there’s a reason or a mechanism to change it,” he said. “I agree with going to 20 years. I can see how we got here. Six of the guys have been passed up.”

Board President Dan Clark said he agreed with the increases and the new step plan.

“I personally don’t have a problem with it,” he said. “It encourages guys to hang around. The retention factor is good.”

Foster said the step increase would not only affect their regular paychecks but their retirement as well.

“For a 20-year firefighter to retire out of Hutto, they would have $1 million more than what a 20-year firefighter out of Liberty Hill would have,” he said. “They have the same retirement system we have. But with our step plan the way that it is, it’s capping us at 10 years. I can almost tell you. I would leave and go to Hutto if we can’t get something done here. It is not about the money. Every one of us here can go and make an extra million dollars at any department.”

Board Secretary James Crabtree asked what the tenure plan was and whether moving up in rank in the department had anything to do with how raises are awarded each year.

Lincoln responded the step tracks had different pay scales depending on rank and services where officers would get more than someone who remained in the department at a lower position.

“It’s just tenure,” said Lincoln. “If we have performance issues, we deal with those right up front. If they’re not able to do their job, then they don’t need to be here.”

WCESD Fire Marshal Michael Dickens said it cost the department about $60,000-70,000 to hire and train a new firefighter.

“My first tenure in my career was in Taylor,” he said. “We had a 20-year step plan, but the steps were every one to four years, and it was low. In my first 10 years there, we went through 28 firefighters that I can think of just off the top of my head. It was a revolving door because there was no retention plan.”

After a 20-minute discussion, the Board approved the new budget by a 4-1 vote, with Baker opposed.

Also Monday, the Board:
• Approved a tax rate of $0.083155 per $100 property value for the upcoming fiscal year. As a result, the tax rate will increase by $2.41 per $100,000 of property value.
• Heard a monthly report from Lincoln about monthly calls. Lincoln said the department received 213 calls for the month, 141 for emergency medical services, and 72 with an average response time of seven minutes and 45 seconds.
The next meeting is scheduled for Sept. 27 at 6:30 p.m.

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