Faster, more reliable emergency responses are worth the cost of staffing some Smith County Emergency Services District 2 fire stations around the clock, ESD 2 Chief of Operations Terry Rozell said at a recent work session. However, others within the organization disagree. 

Rozell said a sales tax increase, which would have to be approved by voters, could raise a little more than $1 million.

Sales tax rates would have to go up by 1.5 percent in unincorporated areas of Smith County and up by 0.5 percent in New Chapel Hill and Noonday to reach the approximate $1 million revenue increase. Rozell said after the meeting that the proposed sales tax increase would almost cover the cost of staffing eight stations 24 hours a day.

Rozell estimated it would cost approximately $2.7 million more per year to staff eight stations around the clock.

The fire stations included in ESD 2 are: Arp, Bullard, Chapel Hill, Dixie, Flint-Gresham, Jackson Heights, Noonday, Red Springs, Troup, Whitehouse and Winona. 

Most cities in the Emergency Services District 2 have reached the maximum sales tax rate of 2 percent that can be charged at the local level. New Chapel Hill and Noonday would be the only cities that would face a tax increase, but everyone in the Emergency Services District 2 would vote on such a proposal.

A study by Emergency Services Consulting International found ESD 2's response times were too long and that too few firefighters were responding.

ESD 2 Commissioner Earl Drott said more vehicles on the road and more structures and people in the county mean more work for volunteer firefighters.

Keith Tate, a spokesman for the Flint-Gresham Volunteer Fire Department, said the command staff within the ESD are overwhelmed with the number of volunteers they manage.

“We are in over our head at the leadership level,” Tate said. “I am not for the 24/7 staff today. We have an unstable foundation.”  

Tate said he believes establishing districtwide guidelines on how to respond to a fire would be enough to end some problems. He said response times would be quicker with paid staff around the clock but the costs may be too much for taxpayers.

ESD 2 Commissioner Leroy Biggers said he believes response times can be improved by meeting with fire chiefs and implementing new policies to guide firefighters on scene.

ESD 2 Commissioner Paul Perryman said he is against spending money unless it’s necessary. He said he doesn’t think a 24/7 paid staff is necessary or practical now, though it will be in the future. 

Rozell said he does not want to be responsible for someone losing their home or their life because volunteer response times were too slow and paid staff could have reached the fire sooner because they would already be at the fire station.

“Currently if you’re working a structure fire, the volunteers are getting to the station and it’s five to seven to eight minutes from the time they get the alarm at their house (to get to the station). You’re looking at five to seven to eight minutes on a good day and the fire is spreading,” Rozell said. “That’s not a diss on the volunteers, that’s just the logistics.”

Rozell said he needs direction from the Board of Commissioners to move forward with budget planning, which needs to be done by August.

Smith County ESD 2 President Randy Melton instructed Rozell to look into how the board would go about getting a tax increase on an election ballot, including which dates the issue could be placed on a ballot.

Melton said he would like to see staffing options, costs and associated required taxes presented at a budget meeting. No date was set for the meeting, though the discussion could be added to the next regular board meeting agenda. 

Unless he gets direction, Rozell said he will have to keep next year's proposed budget at the current funding level and inform the board as to what would be required to raise the funds needed for 24/7 staffing. 

He said it would take at least three meetings before the commission would call an election to address the tax rate. 

Reporter

James Hartley is a multimedia journalist focusing on written news, features and longform storytelling. He is passionate about local politics, true stories, movies and baseball. Connect with James on Twitter @ByJamesHartley or Instagram @JamesTakesPhotos.

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