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Edna to vote on tax to keep fire, medical services

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
April 29, 2013 at 7:01 p.m.
Updated April 29, 2013 at 11:30 p.m.

A reflection seen from the large outside mirror of a fire truck shows Terry Jordan, a five-year veteran of the Edna Fire Department. Jordan is one of seven full-time firefighters and medics employed by the city, which also relies on the services of an additional 20 volunteers.

Edna city officials are pushing a new taxing entity for the Edna ISD coverage area that, if passed, would ensure the city's fire and emergency medical services remain intact.

City Manager Ken Knight said the proposed Emergency Services District No. 3 - to appear as a special election item on the May 11 ballot - is necessary for the city to continue funding its seven full-time fire and EMS employees.

If the ESD doesn't pass Election Day, Knight said he will recommend to the City Council that emergency medical services be turned over to the Jackson County Hospital District, the city's fire and ambulance equipment be sold or repurposed and the city transition to an all-volunteer fire department.

Currently, Edna has a roster of about 40 volunteer firefighters, of which 20 are active.

Knight said the latter decision could be disastrous for the county.

"The hospital district can't cover the area's EMS calls without additional equipment and hiring personnel," Knight said. "I have no question about their competence and ability to provide that coverage. But they can't provide fire coverage."

Knight said the city's paid emergency staff are certified emergency medical technicians and certified firefighters, so they work in a dual capacity if necessary.

"They can jump in an ambulance and fire truck at the same time, if they need to, and respond to a call," Knight said.

Knight said his biggest concern if the city shifts to a volunteer fire department is that volunteers would begin driving to fire calls from their homes or work rather than one specified area, which could increase fire response time from two to five minutes to 12 to 15 minutes.

"That could be catastrophic," he said.

The district is necessary for the city, Knight said, because for the past 15 years, Jackson County formerly paid the city $100,000 to provide EMS to residents of the county. The city received an additional $250 for every fire call it responded to, and if ambulance services were needed, the city billed the transport's insurance companies.

In years past, Knight said, the city was only subsidizing about one-fourth to one-third of fire and EMS expenses because they were generating revenue.

But when the city of Ganado contracted its EMS with the Jackson County Hospital District, Knight said, the city lost that needed revenue stream. The county stopped paying the $100,000 stipend to the city because the Jackson County Hospital District picked up coverage for areas Edna was formerly responsible for.

Last June, while putting together the annual budget, Knight said the city had to make up for the revenue shortfall by dipping into the general budget to pay down the $750,000 fire and EMS budget required for the year.

"Our revenue went from a one-third subsidy and two-thirds revenue to two-thirds subsidy and one-third revenue. That simply isn't sustainable," he said.

To balance the budget, the city had to subsidize $500,000 to make up for the revenue losses. In years past, it was only subsidizing about $250,000. Knight said it also had to pull $135,000 from the general fund reserves.

Knight projects that in 10 years, with no revenue gains from EMS and fire, the city will go bankrupt.

"If you're dipping into savings every budget cycle, it's not sustainable."

But the ESD No. 3 proposal could prevent that from happening.

If ESD No. 3 passes, Knight said the maximum amount property owners would be taxed is 10 cents per $100 valuation. It would be a new tax for those living in the unincorporated areas of the county, who are currently receiving fire and EMS services free of charge.

For those living inside the city limits, Knight said, he will propose the City Council reduces the city tax rate from 30.84 to 20.84 per $100 valuation if the ESD passes May 11.

But not everyone thinks the new tax is necessary.

Edna native Tommy Srp said he will be voting against the new tax Election Day.

"There's an issue of transparency," Srp said. "If you look at what they're doing to the fire department, they're pushing them out the door. There's a nice pamphlet. There's a good website, a lot of good yard signs. What there's not is a good financial proposal."

Srp said he doesn't agree with the proposed ESD tax rate. He said that's the maximum amount allowed by law, and it doesn't need to be that high.

He also questions whether the city looked at other ways of saving money, other departments within the city, that could have had their finances cut before implementing a new tax for residents.

Srp also said the city is using the threat of not having a fire department as a scare tactic to ensure the new tax is passed.

"The threat of not having a fire department is a greater advantage for them," he said. "They don't show all their options. This is an effort on their part to strong-arm us."

Bill Jones, administrator for the Jackson County Hospital District, said it is prepared to provide emergency medical services if the ESD fails at the polls May 11.

With 13 staffed, certified EMS personnel, six part-time EMS personnel and three ambulances, Jones said the district would not need additional equipment or staff to respond to emergency calls in the Edna school district areas.

"We're prepared right now to handle emergency calls anywhere in the district," Jones said. "We will take care of emergency calls as required. We're staffed to do it. Either way that this thing falls, we'll work with ESD, or we'll work to make sure people are covered."

Still, Knight said the best way to provide suitable fire and EMS coverage for residents of Edna is to vote yes to the ESD No. 3. on May 11.

"Nobody likes to be taxed; I don't like to be taxed," he said. "But when it's your house on fire, 15 minutes extra to roll out a truck, get in the truck . that's where it's really going to affect people. That's where it really gets scary, if we lose that response time for fire."

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