Corsicana Daily Sun, Corsicana, Texas

November 1, 2013

Guest Commentary: We’re the government and here to help

By John H. Jackson
Special to the Corsicana Daily Sun

Corsicana — A few years ago, citizens in the Kerens Independent School District signed a Petition supporting creation of an Emergency Service District with boundaries coinciding with the Kerens ISD. But what is an ESD? An emergency service district (ESD) is a governmental entity with an appointed board by which additional taxes can be collected from property owners within the district, and the proceeds used to fund services such as fire departments, emergency medical services and other first responders. The concept was sold to voters in the KISD as a method to fund the always financially-stressed Volunteer Fire Departments, which typically financed their operations mostly on pride and community spirit, along with fish fries, bake sales, a few grants, and donations from concerned citizens. The ESD was created after a fairly close vote, and board members then, as now, were appointed by the Navarro County Commissioners Court. Taxes upon landowners began to be assessed and paid, giving some needed relief to the strapped Kerens and Powell VFDs, although at a rate that many would call nominal. Taxpayers didn’t seem to notice the additional taxes that were assessed, although there were rumors of rising dissatisfaction with the ESD, due to increasingly capricious and bureaucratic attitudes that were exhibited by the board members toward the volunteer firefighters.

Unknown to the volunteers, a low-key yet purposeful campaign was playing itself out in Austin. Driven by forces that can only be imagined, ESDs were discovered by lobbyists and other self-serving individuals and firms as the new “cash cow.” Lacking a vehicle to entrench ESDs as a new bureaucracy with power unimaginable to their creators, this small contingent focused on the State Law by which ESDs are created — Art. 775 of the Texas Health and Safety Code. This year, the Legislature dropped a quietly exploding bomb by amending H&S Code Art. 775.073(d) with the innocuous language, “Any property purchased or leased using District Funds must remain the property of the district, regardless of whether the property is used by a third party under a contract for services or otherwise, . . .”   (HB 3798) Navarro County ESD No. 1 has interpreted this to mean that if the District contributes even a penny to the purchase of a $100,000 fire truck or rescue vehicle, that property belongs to the District, not the Volunteer Fire Department. Thus, our home-grown ESD has demanded that the Kerens and Powell Volunteers sign a contract acknowledging this, along with other requirements, as follow:

1. That the volunteers seek ESD approval before entering into any agreement.  (This elevates getting a flat fixed to a Board decision)

2. That even after the ESD grants funds to the volunteers, the funds still belong to the ESD. (One wonders if the next session of the Legislature will provide that the funds remain the property of the ESD after they’re spent on fixing the flat)

3. That the volunteers can use no grant from the ESD to defend itself in lawsuits. (But the ESD can use taxpayer funds to defend lawsuits, perpetuate its existence, and harass VFDs).

4. That the ESD does not have to grant any funds to the VFDs.  (So what will they be spent on?)

5. That the ESD can require training over and above that required by other government agencies.  (More paperwork and requirements for volunteers)

6. That the ESD can make unannounced inspections of books, records, and property of the volunteers.  (Gotcha!)

7. That the volunteers can receive no gifts without Board approval. (The ESD attorney, Ken Campbell says this is to prevent non-useable property from being “donated to the dupes at the VFD,”- italics mine, email his)  

8. That the Volunteers cannot buy anything without ESD approval.  (See No. 1 above)

9. That any property of the Volunteers will belong to the ESD, regardless of legal title. (Can the rest of us get a deal like this?)

The list goes on. ESD members take the position that they are “required by law” to take over our rural VFDs in this manner.  When I asked the ESD Board, “Are you personally offended by the provisions of this State law?” one Board member answered, “Not at all.” Other board members replied that they would “defer to their attorney” before answering my question.  

The Kerens and Powell VFDs find such conduct unacceptable as a classic example of government-out-of-control. We have become almost complacent with such conduct on the Federal level. Can we afford to tolerate an unelected bureaucracy which has boot-strapped itself into the thing that all citizens should rightfully fear — an unelected government body which is the beneficiary of taxpayer funds, that is empowered to collect property owner’s tax money, can use those funds to perpetuate its own existence, and is engaged in a shameless attempt to take over the functions (and the property) of dedicated local Volunteers? Is it a surprise to anyone that the Kerens and Powell VFD’s (the only fire departments in the ESD) have unanimously asked that the ESD be dissolved?  

John H. Jackson

Pro Bono Attorney for

The Kerens and Powell Volunteer Fire Departments