By Janet Jacobs
Corsicana Daily Sun
The volunteer fire departments from Powell and Kerens declined to sign contracts with the Emergency Services District No. 1 on Tuesday when the board met in regular session in Powell.
The ESD 1 is a tax-collecting entity that contracts with Powell, Kerens, and the Richland Chambers 287 volunteer fire departments to ensure fire service, amping up the abilities of the volunteer fire departments with heavy influxes of money.
Attorney John Jackson represented the two departments Tuesday at the ESD 1 meeting, and he said neither is ready to sign until there are changes to the contracts.
“I think it’s no secret there’s a breakdown between the two fire departments and the ESD,” Jackson told the board.
The formation of ESD 1 was sold to the voters as a vehicle to meet the needs of the departments, Jackson said.
“This forces the fire departments to give up their autonomy and authority over our departments,” he said. “It’s slowly killing the fire departments.
“I think the fire departments would rather go back to holding bake sales and fish fries,” Jackson said. “These are folks who feel more strongly in the autonomy of their departments and needless regulations than the money.”
Control is at the heart of the matter, both of the money and the trucks and stations, members say.
“What they’re asking us to do is, if we sign these contracts, there’s a clause that says everything we’ve accumulated since the mid-80s becomes a part of the ESD,” said Dennis Bancroft, who is mayor of Powell and a member of the Powell Fire Department. “If the contract expires or (the ESD) doesn’t renew it, it all becomes their property.”
The ESD did require more accountability from the Kerens Volunteer Fire Department when one of that department’s members stole a little less than $3,000 from their bank account this past spring. The ESD demanded an audit and a reworking of their articles of incorporation, and the fire department has complied with that.
But the new contracts are about more than making sure the financial records are straight.
The new contract requires, among other things, that the treasurers for each fire department be bonded, that the departments have an average response time of 15 minutes, and that the departments turn over the assets of the department to the district if the department dissolves or the contract is terminated, and gives power to the district to make decisions about that dissolution or contract end.
It also states that if there’s a disagreement over that clause, then the volunteer fire departments have to pay the attorney’s fees and court costs for the district.
Ken Campbell, the Austin attorney who represents ESD 1, said that’s only in case the department folds, or the ESD needs to drop a department, to make sure the equipment isn’t lost.
“They might get some (money) from fundraisers but the bulk of that is coming from the taxpayers,” Campbell said. “If we ever get a fire department that has bad people on it, do we want to give up the fire station that the taxpayers have already paid for? All we’re saying is that if the contract is terminated all their stuff becomes our stuff so we don’t have to tax at a higher rate to replace it and can still provide fire protection.”
He argues that over the course of the years the ESD 1 will eventually replace all the equipment, so it should belong to the ESD if something happens.
“This is just a contract to make sure the taxpayers’ equity is protected and doesn’t walk away,” Campbell said.
Campbell said state law states that anything bought with ESD money belongs to the ESD. What makes it confusing is that some of the equipment in these two departments was bought before the ESD 1 was created in 2007, he admitted. But even if the money didn’t come from the ESD, it did come from the public for the purpose of fire protection, so the equipment should go to the entity charged with providing that fire protection, Campbell argues.
He also said they would work with Jackson to work out an agreement.
“Kerens and Powell are both great fire departments. They’ve got a lot of sweat equity. I understand where they’re coming from. There’s a lot of psychological attachment to what you’ve built. Nobody likes to see somebody come in and say ‘now we’re it,’” Campbell said. “Nobody’s trying to take anything away from them. We’re trying to determine that if there is a divorce the citizens don’t lose their equity. So (the ESD) can continue to operate if somebody bad gets in there, or they forget why they’re there.
“This is only if everything goes south,” Campbell said.
Members of the Kerens Volunteer Fire Department declined to go on record about their feelings about the contract, deferring questions to Jackson. But Kerens is an independent department. Powell’s fire department is a subsidiary of the town. When elected, the city council members automatically go onto the fire board. The fire chief is appointed by the council. The city has guaranteed truck purchases and helped the department in numerous ways. The department answers to the elected officials, Bancroft said.
Giving up the town’s property to ESD 1 is something Bancroft opposes, particularly since the ESD board is appointed, not elected.
“It belongs to the Town of Powell. If we sign this contract, we basically come in and give this all away,” Bancroft said.
The contract dispute will be hashed out between the lawyers over the course of the next few weeks, Campbell and Jackson said. In the meantime, the ESD 1 board agreed to continue as they were.
“You don’t need a contract to fight fire,” said ESD 1 Board President David Foreman Tuesday evening. “The only thing not having the contract does is strap them financially because without a contract we can’t pay them.”
Although RC/287 didn’t dispute the contract Tuesday, it’s clear that the volunteer fire department is also concerned about ownership when it comes to ESD 1. On Tuesday, their representative asked the ESD board to accept a check for $2,182 from RC/287. In 2010, the fire department got a FEMA grant to buy a new truck and ESD 1 paid the matching funds to the tune of $2,182. Now, the ESD is claiming to own the entirety of the truck, but the volunteer department would rather pay back the ESD’s money than give up the whole vehicle.
The board members said they’d check with their attorney to see if they could accept the money.
Janet Jacobs may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Want to “sound off” to this article? E-mail: Soundoff@corsicanadailysun.com