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LA SALLE HOPED TO FUND EMERGENCY SERVICES BY DEDICATING TAX REVENUES
In the final two months of his 20-year tenure as La Salle County judge, Joel Rodriguez finds himself debating how best to handle voter rejection of a proposed emergency services district to fund the fire brigade and ambulance service.
The La Salle Fire Rescue – which is made up of fully trained and paid firefighters and medics – maintains two new stations in Cotulla and Encinal and operates a fleet of modern emergency vehicles. The service was created by La Salle County at the height of the energy industry boom over the Eagle Ford Shale and has been funded through property and minerals taxes in a burgeoning economy.
On November 8, the county’s voters, both inside and outside Cotulla city limits, were given the option of creating an emergency services district that would serve as the principal funding branch of the county government in order to maintain an annual budget for the emergency responders.
The ballot proposition proffered to voters in the general election asked them whether they would agree to “The creation of a La Salle County Emergency Services District No. 1 and adoption of a tax on the ad valorem property situated in said district at a rate not to exceed ten cents on the one hundred dollars valuation for the support of the district.”
The preliminary vote tally came back on election night showing 532 cast ballots in favor of the measure, but 821 voted against it. While slight changes in the final count were to be expected pending official canvassing of the election by the county commissioners’ court, the outcome was not to change and reflected a resounding turn-down of the proposed ESD by the public.
Canvassing was conducted Monday, Nov. 21.
In the aftermath of the election, Judge Rodriguez believes voters read the proposition as meaning they would pay an additional property tax on their homes.
That perception, he said in a brief interview last week, was false.
“It would have been a wash,” the judge said of the ESD funding, adding that he and supporters of the measure have reiterated commissioners had no intention of raising property taxes to pay for the fire and ambulance service. “The funding would have been allocated from taxes already being paid.”
The judge stopped short of agreeing that the court’s wording of the ballot proposition was misleading, referring instead to presentations he has given in commissioners’ court and to the city of Cotulla at its council meetings over the past year, reminding his audiences that property owners would not see a hike in their tax bills.
This week, the judge said he believes many in La Salle County were unaware how the emergency services district would actually be funded.
Speaking on behalf of the La Salle Fire Rescue this week, Captain Sean Wallace said the service has a full staff of 45 firefighters and medics as well as those in administrative positions, and that the fire stations in Cotulla and Encinal are now fully equipped.
The county government is reporting that an approximate annual budget for the fire service runs close to five million dollars, including all hourly pay for the officers, salaries for administrators, equipment, and operations. The number does not include construction of any new facilities, Capt. Wallace said.
Judge Rodriguez said on Tuesday that the county’s budget for the emergency services only saw expenditures of four million dollars last year and “we have not yet spent four million this year.”
Members of the fire and ambulance service are dually trained as firefighters and medics; entry-level officers are paid approximately $17 per hour, Capt. Wallace said. Advanced-level paramedics can expect to see higher rates of hourly pay.
Over the past five years, the La Salle Fire Rescue has striven to shorten response times on emergency calls, bringing the time it takes between a 911 call and arrival of a fire truck or ambulance at the scene of an emergency down to a matter of minutes. For its part, the county government has used rising tax revenues to equip the service with modern vehicles, including ladder trucks, thereby helping La Salle County to achieve a lower insurance cost rating. Homeowners are beginning to see reduced insurance rates for their properties because of the advanced level of fire brigade service now available, the county judge said.
The creation of an emergency services district in La Salle County would have dedicated a portion of tax revenues already flowing into the courthouse to the administrative agency that would have established an annual budget for the fire brigade and ambulance service.
Under the conditions for the creation of an emergency services district, funds set aside in an annual budget from county tax revenues would flow into an account in which any surplus would not need to be returned to the county.
Presently, all departments supported by the county in its annual budget are required to put their unspent allocations back into the general fund.
According to the county judge, the La Salle Fire Rescue would have been able to build up a reserve in its ESD fund for future purchases of equipment and vehicles.
Rodriguez leaves office at the end of this year and will be replaced by Leodoro “Lolo” Martinez. The son of a former county judge prevailed over Rodriguez in the Democratic Party primary elections in March to earn a place on the ballot in the general election this month. He was elected Nov. 8 with no opposition and is expected to take the oath of office on January 1.
“Can the voters be given this proposition again in a future election? Yes, they can,” Judge Rodriguez said Tuesday. “But the messaging needs to be clear. There was a lot of misinformation out there in this election. In fact, I think even some elected officials didn’t understand.”
A repeat ballot could come as soon as a year from now, the judge said.
“The work of our firemen and medics is very important,” Rodriguez added. “They like working in La Salle. There is a lot of work variety. One day, it could be an oilfield explosion. Another day, it could be an old lady who needs help in her home. It changes all the time.
“Younger firefighters and medics in big cities don’t get that kind of variety and experience,” the judge said. “Here in La Salle, the young get the experience right away. They’re all out there. We trained them, and they’re glad to work for us. Even in medical trauma cases, they’re getting experience that they just wouldn’t have elsewhere.”
Rodriguez praised the fire and ambulance service for its cadet course which, he said, rivals and exceeds the expectations of those in other cities and at many universities.
“Our firefighters are passing their exams and earning their licenses at a higher rate than at other places because we train them right here and we are experienced in that front-line work,” the judge said. “Our service is respected across the region, and we have assisted Webb, Zavala, Frio, Dimmit, McMullen and other counties, and we earned that respect. I would hate for us to lose that.”