GILMER — A May 12 special election on a proposed tax increase for the Upshur County Emergency Services District
drew criticism and support from residents at a sometimes-heated meeting of the district's board here Monday night.
Only rural Upshur County dwellers and residents in the City of East Mountain can vote in the election because other incorporated cities in the county opted out of being in the fire district.
While state law requires the ballot be worded to let the rate be raised to as much as 10 cents, the board's attorney, David Griffith, said approving the increase would not automatically raise the rate that high. He said the tax hike was not permanent.
Board President Bill Darby told the group that the board doesn't yet “have a definite figure” of what the tax rate would be next fiscal year if a hike is approved.
The main speaker against the proposed hike, Upshur County Grassroots Tea Party representative Chuck Mears, quoted state Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, as saying the state redirected $81 million to cover costs to rural fire departments.
He also quoted Hughes and state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, as saying they were preparing the state to assist the local entities in case of another drought like last year's, which triggered wildfires.
Mears cited a Sept. 14 issue of The Gilmer Mirror as reporting that county fire departments received $708,000 in equipment and cash through grants. However, Darby replied that amount “was not just for that year” (2011) alone.
Mears also sought to rebut Darby's published statement that weather forecasts for the next one to two years are not encouraging in the wake of the drought that caused last year's wildfires.
“There are few things less dependable than long-range weather forecasts,” the Tea Party leader argued.
He said fundraisers ask the public for support, but taxes “are a demand.” He raised the prospect of people losing their homes and farms because of a tax increase, and said his department's finances were “pretty good.”
However, Dennis Medlin, of the East Mountain Volunteer Fire Department, said such non-equipment costs as insurance consumed $19,000 of the $30,300 the district awarded his department last year, leaving only about $11,000 to buy everything else it needed. Medlin said “high-priced bills” were the reason for the proposed tax hike, and that he only paid $10 in emergency services district taxes on his home.
Glenwood Volunteer Fire Chief Terry Conyers told those present the board was not out “to spend your money unwisely.” Without a tax increase, he said, fire departments will be “scraping for money” needed to purchase better equipment
Conyers also said he didn't think the tax rate would be raised to the full 10-cent limit.
Board member Gaston (Bubba) DeBerry, chief of the Ore City Volunteer Fire Department, concluded the meeting by citing several arguments for the tax hike. He said the amount of total state aid for Texas fire departments had been slashed from a one-time level of $25 million to $7 million, and grant money is not currently available for fire trucks.
DeBerry also said that the current 3-cent tax rate “is not generating enough revenue to keep these fire departments going.”
He said the board still has “a long way to go” in providing equipment to fire departments, and pointed out that residents get to vote on the tax hike, so “it's not being shoved down your throat.”
DeBerry called for the public to sacrifice to help firefighters who “put their lives on the line.”