By JUDY SHERIDAN
Voters who live inside Aledo Volunteer Fire department’s fire coverage area, as well as those within the boundaries of Emergency Services District No. 1, are voting on whether to annex Aledo’s fire district into the ESD.
Early voting ended Tuesday, and Election Day is Saturday, with polls open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. A majority of voters in both areas must vote in favor of the measure for it to pass. If a majority in either the Aledo fire district or ESD No. 1 reject the first proposition, the measure fails. A second, related measure will also appear on the ballot, with voters asked to assume a proportionate share of the ESD’s outstanding debts and taxes. Both propositions one and two must pass in order for the annexation proposal to succeed.
The total debt balance for ESD No. 1 facilities is $710,500, according to ESD No. 1 Assistant Chief Stephen Watson, with a total fleet debt balance of $1.5 million and an annual fiscal debt service payment allocation of $313,000.
The proposed annexation is opposed by six area mayors: Gerhard Kleinschmidt, of Annetta South; Rob Watson, of Annetta North; Bruce Pinckard, of the Town of Annetta; Pat Deen, of the City of Hudson Oaks, Richard Neverdousky, of the City of Willow Park, and Dennis Hooks, of the City of Weatherford.
The mayors are advising citizens to vote against the measure and have added their signatures to a recent political flyer entitled, “We can Make a Difference,” sponsored by a political action committee called Parker County Citizens for Responsible Public Safety.
In the flyer, the mayors point to a tax increase, the loss of city controls, indirect representation and the expense associated with annexing areas already included in an ESD.
Should voters approve the initiative, residents within Aledo’s fire coverage area — encompassing the cities of Aledo and Annetta South, most of Annetta and about 40 homes in Annetta North, as well as unincorporated areas — will begin paying up to 10 cents per $100 property valuation for fire and emergency services beginning January of 2015.
Currently, those within ESD No. 1 are taxed at the maximum rate of 10 cents per $100 property valuation.
ESD No. 1 is headquartered in Springtown. It covers about 200 square miles and is mainly in northern Parker County — with fire departments in Springtown, LaJunta, Silver Creek and Peaster. It has a budget of $1.5 million and $500,000 in reserves.
Aledo VFD initiated the annexation process Nov. 8 by filing a petition for inclusion into the ESD. The petition contained 86 valid signatures from voters who own property in the Aledo area, according to ESD No. 1 Fire Chief Eric Vinson, almost twice as many as required.
After a public hearing Dec. 11, the Parker County Emergency Services District No. 1 Board voted to accept the petition and put the issue on the May ballot.
Nicholas Walker, spokesman for Aledo VFD, cited rising costs — for truck repairs, utilities, fuel, uniforms and equipment — as the biggest factor in the decision to seek support from a predictable tax base after 60 years of independent operations.
“We have three trucks out of service now, and we must pick and choose which one(s) to service,” he said. “We forgo upgrades to fix our trucks constantly.”
As costs have risen, donations have remained static or decreased, he said, fueling a budget that has remained between $220,000 and $250,000 for several years.
Currently, the VFD receives $50,000 annually from the City of Aledo and $30,000 from Tarrant County to provide services there. Parker County’s contributions for the past three years average $47,000.
Other annual donations have totaled about $90,000, with about $1,100 from Annetta North between 2009 and 2011 — for coverage of a four-street area — and $1,000 from the Town of Annetta, according to city officials.
Annetta South hasn’t made a donation to Aledo VFD in the past couple years, secretary Daina Lawler said.
Aledo VFD leadership continue to support their choice of ESD No. 1 — the largest ESD in the county — for its operational stability, fiscal strength and track record of cooperation with its service providers, Walker said.
ESD No. 1 also has a full-time fleet maintenance employee.
For its part, the 130-square-mile Aledo VFD is expected to contribute about $1 million annually in tax revenue, Walker said.
The money would be pooled with the taxes collected from the rest of the district, he said, then distributed by a five-member board of commissioners, who are appointed to two-year terms by the Parker County Commissioners’ Court.
Currently, the ESD No. 1 board consists of president Rena Peden, Robert Wershay, Mark Jack and Justin McKinley. The board has one vacancy.
Walker said the board has verbally committed to filling the vacancy with an Aledo area resident, as well as to hiring four full-time firefighters, two immediately after the election, two later to staff a new fire station in the Annettas.
Aledo Mayor Kit Marshall said she supports the Aledo VFD firefighters.
Other mayors with land inside the boundaries of the proposed annexation — Annetta, Annetta North and Annetta South — offered other comments, as well as Precinct 4 commissioner Dusty Renfro.
Annetta Mayor Bruce Pinckard said he supports the Aledo VFD firefighters and wants to help, but has serious concerns about the effect of the proposed annexation on the city’s ability to manage and plan for emergency services in the future.
“We want to establish a contract for fire services, not rely on promises,” he said.
A city’s powers and control of emergency services are weakened by inclusion in an ESD, he said, and citizens are taxed without having direct representation.
Annetta North Mayor Rob Watson, with most of his city included in ESD No. 3, said the area’s tax dollars would be spread over a larger area with ESD No. 1 rather than ESD No. 3, a 22.5-square-mile district headquartered in Hudson Oaks.
“Our tax dollars would go to ESD No. 1, with headquarters in Springtown,” he said. “Their commissioners would decide how our money is spent. In a smaller area, people on the board would be from our community.”
Watson said he would prefer two paid firefighters 24 hours per day — ESD No. 3’s current coverage — to two paid firefighters working eight hours per day during the week — ESD No. 1’s proposed coverage.
Annetta South Mayor Gerhard Kleinschmidt said Aledo VFD has not provided Annetta South with enough information on the proposal.
“Why should we support it,” he asked.
“I would rather see an ESD formed in Precinct 4,” Renfro said. “I’d rather have our citizens deciding on where that money goes rather than the citizens of another precinct.
“I’d like to see all five board members be from precinct 4, but I guess that’s not an option at this point. Precinct 4 pays in a lot of taxes, and we need to get our fair share back.”
The mayors in all three Annettas referenced HB 1798, a bill that would allow cities located within a proposed ESD expansion area to opt out, something they are unable to do under current law.
Two flyers sent to residents from Parker County Citizens for Responsible Public Safety use the bill to make a case for voting against the annexation.
“HB 1798 will give cities the right to consider to participate or not in an ESD and more flexibility to allow your elected representatives to better protect and serve you,” the first flyer mailed states.
“This legislation is expected to pass and become law, but won’t take effect until September.”
In fact, the bill is unlikely to be considered this legislative session, according to Caleb Troxclair, Chief of Staff for Representative Phil King.
“The bill is in the County Affairs Committee and hasn’t been voted out,” he said. “At this point in time it most likely is not going to pass. It’s getting close to May, and it hasn’t had a hearing. I wouldn’t say it’s dead, but it’s on life support.”
If the annexation proposal doesn’t pass, Walker said, “the area will continue to be balloted and brought to election, until it’s incorporated into an ESD.”
“The issue is not going to go away,” he said. “We wouldn’t be able to come back for another year, and in November, other ESDs would take part of our area.
“Taxes are coming eventually, like it or not.”