Santo Fire & EMS

SANTO — The fire hall in Santo is likely to be standing room only Tuesday when residents of a three-community emergency services district are expected to face down five appointed commissioners who will decide whether to levy a 10-cent tax for ambulance services.

The volunteer leaders of Emergency Services District 2, which provides ambulance service to the Santo, Brazos and Lone Pine communities, cite local population growth in asking their governing commission to enact the first-ever property tax on residents of the seven-year-old district.

Some of those residents question why the district’s 2.5-cent sales tax, which brings in about $41,000 a month, no longer is sufficient for the service. They also question spending the district has undertaken, including a recent $190,000 land purchase for a planned headquarters.

The 2-acre tract on Interstate 20 at U.S. 281 is valued for taxes at $92,400 in Palo Pinto Appraisal District records.

“What we want to use this tax money for is, primarily, for salaries,” said Ken Backes, an ESD2 commissioner and treasurer. 

Backes holds a similar post on the ESD1 commission, governing county-wide fire service which also handles ambulance calls except in the ESD 2 area and Mineral Wells.

The tax also is to boost the service to 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“Times have changed,” Backes said. “People are moving in here, and there’s not enough money out of sales taxes. To be fair, (sales tax revenue) has increased, but the increase hasn’t kept up with EMS calls. … We’re going to give it the maximum chance of not missing a call.”

Ambulance runs have increased from around 130 a year in 2014, when residents created the district, to about 360 this year. The district now operates Thursday through Sunday, with the Santo Volunteer Fire Department fielding EMS calls the other three days.

Meanwhile, Backes says the communities in the district have seen explosive population growth.

“Oh my gosh. Yeah, yeah — this is a booming area around the county,” he said, ticking off some 30 new homes in Capstone Ridge, another 80 or so nearby and more new home sales in Lone Camp.

Tax opponents say they appreciate what ESD 2 does for their quality of life. They just question whether the district has been a responsible steward of the money it now has.

“Everybody wants ambulance (service),” district resident Mark Hukel concedes, noting that voters OKed the sales tax that took effect in mid-2017.

Along with the land buy, he and fellow resident Ron Daily, a real estate agent, accurately note the ballot creating the district in 2014 did not include the words, “tax,” “levy,” or anything else indicating it could increase anyone’s tax burden.

Hukel said ESD 1 has a 3-cent property tax for fire service and a 2-cent sales tax for ambulances.

The ESD 2 measure passed by a 620-136 margin.

Hukel said he’s heard from just two people who support the new tax.

“Guess who they are,” he said. “One was an (emergency medical technician) who doesn’t live here. The other was the son of a man whose father lives here and wants his father to have this.”

Hukel and Daily point to some 265 residents who jammed the Santo First Baptist Church during a recent community meeting to learn about the impending tax on which they have no vote.

“It’s a buzzsaw in this community,” Daily said.

The five commissioners will decide whether to set a 10-cent tax rate, which is the maximum a special district in Texas may enact, during a 6 p.m. meeting today in the Santo station, at 1250 Farm-to-Market Road 2201.

The tax already has been calculated by the appraisal district and would be in place on this year’s property tax bills. The sales tax will remain in effect regardless of today’s decision.

A main reason Backes says the district needs to switch from all-volunteer to paid crews lies in the Fair Labor Standards Act.

A few years ago, a core of regular volunteer paramedics and other responders dwindled to about five, prompting the governing board to create $100 stipends for each 12-hour shift the volunteers serve, now Thursdays through Sundays.

Those stipends, however, will exceed the limit set in the labor standards act for volunteers to be considered employees within weeks.

“So, essentially, next month we’re not going to have any ‘volunteers,’” he said. “Because they’ve been pulling shifts at $100 a pop.”

Hukel and Daily also oppose the planned move to the northeast side of Interstate 20 at U.S. Highway 281, with Daily going so far as to question why the district responds to wrecks on the interstate.

“I’m a compassionate person, and I don’t want anyone dying, but it’s a federal highway out there,” he said.

Backes said 43 percent of the district’s calls last year were to either I-20 or U.S. 281. He added there is no question about whether ESD 2 crews should help travelers in need.

“We have a responsibility,” he said. “(The new lot) is 500 yards from the busiest intersection in the county.”

And as for the district’s stewardship, he notes it is buying a $330,000 ambulance “that we will allow Santo (EMS) to use,” and paid for a $380,000 expansion that added four bays and other space to the Santo fire hall.

“Every penny is accounted for,” he said, adding the district’s outside audit is on its website, at https://palopintoesd2.com.

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