For the first time next Tuesday, rural voters will be able to pick the board members controlling their local Emergency Services District. A recent change in state law removed the previously appointed boards in favor of members picked by popular vote.
All five of the seats in Smith County's ESD No. 1, representing the Lindale area, went uncontested. The much larger ESD No. 2, serving the rest of the county aside from Tyler, has been hotly contested based on tax rates and services provided.
Smith County Citizens for Public Safety has endorsed one slate of candidates, consisting of Sandra "Sandy" Hayley for District 1, Charles Wilson for District 2, Leroy Biggers (unopposed) for District 3, Randal "Randy" Melton for District 4 and Dr. Theodore "Ted" Gould for District 5. Grassroots America — We the People has endorsed an entirely different slate of candidates consisting of Paul Perryman for District 1, write-in candidate Anthony Bruner for District 2, Robert Dear for District 4 and Matt Thiessen for District 5.
At the heart of the dispute over ESD No. 2's leadership is the entity's tax rate, which has been set for years at approximately 8.5 cents per $100 in home value. Grassroots America has voiced support for a rate drop to about 6 cents, which is more in line with the funding level of Lindale's ESD No. 1.
"It is not a very simple cut-and-dry (argument of) ‘We're going to cut taxes' or ‘We're going to raise taxes' or ‘We're going to hold the line' or anything else," Citizen's for Public Safety Keith Tate said.
Tate spoke at a news conference on Monday in which he said the group's primary focus is to inform voters that the ESD issue is on the ballot and to provide information on the candidates' goals.
He said the candidates that Citizen's for Public Safety picked for endorsement were supportive of a long-term financial plan involving paying down several million dollars in debt while preserving existing levels of service. Under that plan a tax cut would be possible once the debt is paid, though Tate said growth in Smith County could preclude such a cut.
Grassroots America's JoAnn Fleming answered questions about the race earlier in the day via phone from Austin.
"There have been at least three fire stations that are valued at over $1.4 million that were built without following state law," Ms. Fleming said.
Grassroots America's candidates have stated a strong focus on reining in what Ms. Fleming sees as uncontrolled spending unchecked by legal oversight. Tate, a longtime volunteer fire fighter, admitted there have been problems in the past. He said Citizen's for Public Safety's slate of candidates consists of people who have learned from those problems.
Another big issue is where those firefighters go. Ms. Fleming questioned how calls are handled when they slip south into Cherokee County under the watch of Bullard Volunteer Fire Department and Troup Fire Department.
Ms. Fleming said the Grassroots America candidates will stand firm against trucks and workers responding outside of Smith County until Cherokee County is paying an agreed and legally contracted rate every time a truck rolls out. Though it has been common for firefighters from Bullard and Troup to respond to fires in Cherokee County, their departments' operating budgets almost entirely are funded by Smith County tax funds. A small minority of the funding comes from Cherokee County taxpayers.
"We don't want schools and businesses and homes and churches to burn down," Ms. Fleming said of the time it will take to come to an agreement. "We absolutely want them to have coverage. But we believe it's a reasonable expectation for there to be an accounting of exactly how much it costs us."
Smith County voters in ESD No. 2 districts will have to specifically choose between candidates in their specific races. Simply voting a straight ticket (Republican or Democratic) won't include ESD No. 2 candidates.
Early voting continues through Friday. Election Day is Nov. 4.