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The dedication of a percentage of all La Salle County residents’ property taxes for operation of the fire brigade and ambulance service may soon include those living inside Cotulla city limits, following a decision Thursday evening, May 12, for municipal territory inclusion in a new emergency services district.
A scant quorum of councilors voted in favor of the move that will put the city of Cotulla on the county’s side in a future decision to create Emergency Services District 1, with the city of Encinal yet to give its thumbs-up.
Should Cotulla opt out of the district, it will have to seek its fire and ambulance services by contract, which City Administrator Larry Dovalina said Cotulla cannot afford to do.
Cost estimates for a contract for fire and ambulance service in the city of Cotulla exceed $700,000 per year.
La Salle County Judge Joel Rodriguez addressed councilors Thursday and said he believes dedicating a portion of taxes already being paid to the fire rescue service will not only establish a consistent budget but will also ensure its survival in harder economic times.
The judge also said he believes the service cannot be regarded as free of charge to any residents, since it costs approximately $5 million per year to operate.
“We have a responsibility to protect lives and property,” Judge Rodriguez said. “It took a long time to build the fire department. We have improved response times and lowered the city’s and county’s insurance rating to levels that result in more affordable rates to homeowners.” He added that “thousands of properties” whose owners had previously skirted their tax dues have been identified and added to the tax rolls in the past four years, thereby ensuring greater tax revenues to the county.
Those added revenues, according to the county judge, amount to millions of dollars that La Salle will need in order to maintain its budget during a slow-down period in the oil and gas exploration of the Eagle Ford Shale.
Further revenues may be derived from a county sales tax, which Judge Rodriguez said was created in 2015 but has yet to be implemented.
Dovalina described the addition of Cotulla to the emergency services district as “giving the county the authority to ask the voters to create an ESD to continue services in the city.”
As ESD board will be appointed if voters give the green light to the organization. Those board members will eventually be replaced by candidates chosen by voters in future elections, both Rodriguez and Dovalina said.
Councilors Gilbert Ayala and Eloy Zertuche said they hope that city residents will be included in the county-appointed board from the start.
“If it doesn’t happen with an election, we will have to dedicate funds by creating the ESD,” the county judge said of the possibility that voters will turn down the choice of an emergency services district. “Unless you stabilize the funding of departments, you are going to run out of money. You need investment in the community.”
“The county will take it to the voters,” Dovalina told the three councilors in attendance Thursday. “You are the ones who will benefit the most.”
Councilors and Mayor Javier Garcia concurred that the majority of emergency calls for fire and ambulance services come from within city limits.
“Put Cotulla in the ESD to continue receiving service,” Judge Rodriguez said, urging councilors to support creation of the district. “If this city resolution doesn’t pass, but the county’s does, then emergency services in the city will stop.
“What you are doing is getting money prioritized to the fire department,” the county judge said. “The reality is that you have firemen and medics… You have highly skilled firemen. They can get jobs elsewhere.” He added that he estimates a firefighter in La Salle County earns more than $40,000 per year.
“The county can’t continue at that rate,” Rodriguez said.
“We are being included; the citizens who are affected are in the city,” Mayor Garcia said of the decision to put Cotulla into the emergency services district. “This is to ensure that services will continue in our community.”
“This isn’t a free service,” City Attorney Steve Pena said. “Even if you create the district, you still have to pay.” He added that by voting to include the municipal territory in the service district, councilors are “not committing to anything” and are not voting to impose a new tax.
The move to include Cotulla in the county’s ESD-1 was made upon a motion by Councilor Reynaldo Garcia, seconded by Councilor Ayala and supported by Councilor Trevino. Councilors Alejandro Garcia and Manuel Rodriguez were absent from last week’s meeting.