Weatherford Democrat

November 26, 2012

Aledo VFD petitions to join ESD No. 1

Judy Sheridan

ALEDO — Aledo VFD has spent more than 60 years operating as an all-volunteer department, supported by the generosity of residents, as well as through contracts with Parker County, Tarrant County and the City of Aledo.

But with donations decreasing — stifling department growth even as residential development gets under way again — the VFD has decided to seek more predictable support: taxes, collected under the umbrella of Emergency Services District No. 1.

Aledo VFD filed a petition Nov. 8 for inclusion into ESD No. 1, a 200-square-mile district that covers mainly northeast Parker County — Springtown, LaJunta and Silver Creek — as well as the Peaster area.

The area to be annexed follows the boundaries of Aledo’s fire district, which extends north to Farmer Road and one mile south of FM 1886, south almost to U.S. Highway 377 and McDaniel Road, west to Bear Creek Road, almost to FM 51, and east as far as the I-20/I-30 split.  

Starting the process

ESD No. 1, the largest ESD in the county, currently collects 10 cents per $100 valuation — the maximum allowed by state statute — to provide fire and other emergency services.

A public hearing on the petition has been scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 11, at 6 p.m. at the Parker County ESD No. 1 administration offices at 315 Morrow Road in Springtown.

Following the hearing, the ESD’s board of commissioners will determine whether to call for a vote, ESD No. 1 Fire Chief Eric Vinson said, and, if so, will submit the proposal to county election officials for a spot on the ballot in May.

Because five separate entities are included in Aledo’s fire district, there will be five separate votes, Nick Walker, a spokesman for Aledo VFD, said: in Aledo, the county, Annetta, Annetta South and in the portion of Annetta North covered by the district.

“The city [Aledo] did not have to give us permission, but they did give us their blessing,” Walker said. “A portion of the resident’s taxes — 3 or 4 cents of every $100 valuation — was already going to fire service through the annual $50,000 donation.”

Voters in both ESD No. 1 and Aledo’s fire district must approve the change for it to take effect. Should they do so, the district would begin collecting taxes in the annexed area in January of 2014, Vinson said.

Vinson said ESD No. 1 has validated the petition, which went above and beyond the required collection of 50 signatures from registered voters in the Aledo area who are also property owners.

“They had 96 signatures, which they collected in two days, and we validated 86,” Vinson said. “That shows a definite desire of citizens to improve their fire service.”

An increasing need

Fire Chief Morris Leondar — elected by members of the fire department in October — said the decision to become part of an ESD was prompted by dwindling donations and county budget cuts that allowed the VFD to maintain, but not improve.

Aledo VFD has been getting by with a $250,000 budget, Leondar said. Spokesman Rev. Jay Atwood said the budget used to $500,000. It has decreased by $100,000 in the past three years, he said.

Aledo’s allocation from Parker County was $49,485 for FY 2010-11, $41,000 for FY 2011-12 and $48,984 for FY 2012-13, according to figures provided by Fire Marshal Shawn Scott’s office.

“It’s been tougher with the economy to get funding,” Leondar said, “and it’s obvious that the county’s moving out of the fire business. Most [fire departments] are in an ESD or moving into one.”

Leondar said the 100-square-mile Aledo Fire district would generate about $1 million in annual tax revenues, a number confirmed by Vinson, who said ESD No. 1 took in about $1.55 million in tax revenues this year.

Leondar said he expects some opposition to the proposal.

“It’s going to be a hard fought campaign,” he said, “It is anytime you talk about taxing anything. Some people don’t really want that.

“We believe Aledo VFD was dying as it is now, and we wanted to continue our service of 60 years. We wanted to be making our own decision, one we feel good about.”

Leondar said the ESD will help the district lower their ISO (insurance service office) rating, which he said is a 7 inside city limits and a 10 in the county.

The rating is provided by an organization that calculates risk based on many different factors, Leondar said, including the city’s water system and the location of fire stations.

The rating system is 10 — 1, with “1” being the best. Lower ratings translate to lower insurance rates for homeowners, Leondar said.

In ESD No. 1, the money collected from the entire district is pooled, Vinson said, then distributed according to need as determined by the ESD’s five-member board of commissioners, appointed by county commissioners.

Individual fire departments communicate what they need, he said, then he puts together a budget for the board to consider.

“Right now we have four fire departments in our ESD,” he said. “It’s my job to recommend to the board that we spend money in different areas.”

The district is currently purchasing new fire trucks for Silver Creek, Peaster and Springtown.

Aledo, Vinson said, could use two paid staff during daylight hours Monday through Friday as soon as possible. They should add a substation in the southwest portion of the district, ideally within the next one to three years. Later, he said, the main station should be relocated to a more central location, north of the primary station.

Making the choice

Walker said Aledo VFD has been working since July to select the best option, whether to form their own ESD, or join ESD No. 1 — headquartered in Springtown — ESD No. 3 — based in Hudson Oaks — or ESD No. 6, whose main offices are south of Weatherford.

“Our committee came up with 20 general questions [to ask each ESD],” he said, “and we chose the answers that best fit our department.”

Leondar said both the members of the fire department and the department’s board of directors voted unanimously in favor of ESD No. 1.

ESD No. 1 was selected, Walker said, due to its operational stability, fiscal strength, and track record of support and cooperation with its individual service providers. He said ESD No. 1 offers an administration that includes operational command staff support, a full time fleet maintenance division and staff for accounting, inventory, and human resources, freeing up firefighters to fight fires instead of conducting fund raisers.

“There are plans in the immediate future to add more manpower, more staff, more trucks to serve the Annettas and a station in the Annettas,” Walker said. “There’s more financial stability.”

Also factoring into the decision, Leondar said, is ESD No. 1’s focus on volunteerism, which Vinson said was as key to retaining the department’s heritage as it was to lowering the costs of the unanticipated potential annexation for the ESD.

“We lose the heritage and hometown values if we put in paid volunteers 24-7,” Vinson said, adding that the evening and weekend shifts should be left to the volunteers. “There are many years of tradition here.”

Should voters approve Aledo VFD’s petition, property and equipment will be ceded to the ESD, Vinson said. The department will stay much the same in terms of administration, but on the operational side “everyone — the fire chief, battalion chiefs, captains and lieutenants — will drop a rung,” yet retain the same authority and responsibilities.

If Aledo VFD joins ESD No. 1, Vinson said, he expects a smooth transition.

“When you annex an area a lot of things pop up that you don’t expect, but I think there will be less that pop up in Aledo,” he said. “They run the business end so well. Their primary reason for joining is sustainability.”