By Janet Jacobs
Corsicana Daily Sun
Disbanding the Emergency Services District #1 is the goal of a petition being circulated now through Powell and Kerens.
The ESD 1 is a taxing entity that collects property taxes and uses it to support the volunteer fire departments in Kerens, Powell and Richland 287. However, at the latest ESD board meeting, Powell and Kerens firefighters said they didn’t want to sign their ESD contracts because of changes in the contracts.
The petition is to the ESD board itself, asking them to call an election to get rid of the district itself. They need 230 signatures on the petition, but residents are seeking more in case the board refuses to call the election and they need to sue.
Powell’s city council called a special meeting Thursday to talk about why the city wasn’t going to sign, and to urge people to sign the petition.
“Powell’s a little town, but when we have a special meeting it’s usually a big deal,” said Mayor Dennis Bancroft.
At the heart of the matter is a new state law that gives the ESD ownership in the department’s equipment and property, including the fire station, which is attached to the Powell Town Hall.
“If, if we sign the contract all of this accumulated... all those assets, transfer to those five folks (on the ESD board),” Bancroft said. “I couldn’t sign it. It’s not mine to give away.”
The relationship between the ESD board and the fire departments has been up and down since the ESD was created in 2007, Bancroft told about 25 Powell and Kerens residents Thursday night. Voters thought the district would collect the money and distribute it between the three fire departments, but it has turned into a level of bureaucracy, with “thousands” spent on lawyer’s fees and accountants, money that could be better spent on diesel for fire trucks, he said.
“In the last six months, it’s gone downhill dramatically,” Bancroft said, adding that the things that have been said to the firefighters were insulting and degrading.
“You don’t say things like that to people who come out in the middle of the night and put out your fire for free,” he said.
The Kerens Volunteer Fire Department is also refusing to sign the contract, and many of the sticking points are the same, according to Fire Chief Charlie Bush. Essentially, it boils down to ownership and authority.
Bush said his firefighters were told they could be arrested if they responded to a fire without a contract. However, the Kerens fire chief assured the people at Thursday’s meeting that the department is still responding to calls as normal.
David Foreman, chairman of the ESD #1, denied threatening the firefighters, referring all other questions to the ESD’s attorney. At the most recent ESD meeting, the firefighters were assured the ESD agreement would continue to stand until the contract negotiations were completed.
If the ESD is dissolved, the ramifications could be the loss of at least one truck in Powell, and possibly two, depending on how gracious the ESD board decides to be. One of the department’s tanker trucks was bought with a grant from the Texas Forestry Service, but 10 percent of the cost, or about $20,000 was paid by the ESD. Under a new state law that went into effect on Sept. 1, 100 percent of the truck would belong to the ESD unless the board allows Powell to pay the money back.
Representing the two volunteer fire departments is local attorney John Jackson.
“Nobody had any idea this (ESD) would morph into an idea that if we spend one penny on your fire truck it belongs to us,” Jackson said Thursday night. The law takes away “every ounce of autonomy and authority of the volunteer fire departments,” he added.
Jackson said he’d been negotiating with the ESD’s attorney Ken Campbell about the contracts, but those talks had broken down. Jackson said he was told that if his clients didn’t sign the contract that they couldn’t fight fires anymore.
Jackson added that if any volunteer firefighters get arrested for responding to calls, he would represent them for free.
“The ESD has come out against public safety,” he said. “It was created to help the volunteer fire fighters and now it’s hindering the volunteer fire fighters.”
Campbell said to his knowledge, the contract negotiations had not broken down, and he remained hopeful an agreement would be reached.
“What we hope to do is come up with a contract they can sign,” Campbell said. “If we don’t have a contract, then we will have to find somebody else to put out the fires in the areas where we don’t have a contract, and that will be fine.”
Campbell said the ESD could serve as a fire department or could contract with someone else.
“Hopefully, that won’t be an issue because we will have a contract here pretty quickly,” he added. “We should be able to work through this.”
Campbell said he feels once the departments understand what the changes in the law say and what the facts are, they’ll “work towards a nice resolution.”
Powell resident Valorie Bearden was indignant about the law, and the notion that Powell’s fire equipment and property could be lost to the ESD.
“We raised the money to build this building. I’ll be damned if we’re going to give it away,” she said. “We did it without them before, we can do it again.”
Janet Jacobs may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Want to “soundoff” to this article? -mail: Soundoff@corsicanadailysun.com