District resource squabble prompts ESD board replacement

TYLER (TYLER MORNING TELEGRAPH) - County commissioners replaced an Emergency Services Board member Thursday after board members acted to control the use of district resources outside of Smith County.

Emergency Services District No. 2 board president Brian Bateman was reappointed for a second two-year term Dec. 20. Commissioner Jeff Warr asked to rescind the appointment Thursday after the five-member board acted to deter the Bullard Volunteer Fire Department from making service calls into Cherokee County.

Warr said the action put the county at risk of lawsuits from taxpayers within Cherokee Coun­ty who have received service since the fire department was founded in 1955. The department also was routinely responding to calls within the city of Bullard that lies in Cherokee County.

More than 30 homes and campuses for Bullard ISD also lie within the overlap of Bullard and Cherokee County.

ESD board member Robert Dear said the board acted to make Bullard VFD responsible for the calls it responded to because Smith County assets, including fire trucks, personnel and fuel, were being used outside the county without reimbursement.

Dear said the board gave Bullard two options for supplying emergency services to the areas in question during the Dec. 20 meeting — reimburse the district $50,000 per year with $12,500 quarterly payments or stop providing "first responder" services and move to mutual aid only in those areas or "face possible termination of their contract" with the ESD.

Warr said he spoke to Bateman about working with the city of Bullard and Cherokee County officials to establish an official working relationship that would provide service at a reasonable reimbursement to the fire district. He said he needed 45 days, but Bateman and the five-member board acted, putting Bullard VFD on notice it would be in violation of the contract if firefighters crossed the county line.
Warr said there was concern fire and emergency service would not be provided by Bullard VFD, the nearest responder after the board acted to effectively stop Bullard from crossing the county line with ESD No. 2 assets. He asked the court to rescind the appointment of Bateman. County Judge Joel Baker offered an amendment to replace Bateman with Chad Chadwick, a candidate who had gone through the application process, and action was taken to replace Bateman with a 3-2 vote.

Commissioner Terry Phillips questioned the timing and intentions of replacing Bateman. He said the board has made improvements with regard to districtwide transparency and accountability and has uncovered more instances of district money being spent to cover individual departments' debt.

Phillips said the board is a "revolving door" of volunteer appointees who either find themselves overwhelmed and want out or those who address deficiencies and become polarizing figures because they demand accountability.

He said the current board has made progress to identify the district's financial status and standardize its asset management
"This is the wrong precedent to set. They are moving forward but this will move them in the wrong direction," he said.

Resident and former ESD board member Sharon Guthrie told the court the district has collected taxpayer dollars since 2007 with the "best intentions" but that money had been wasted.

Mrs. Guthrie noted several instances, including purchases of property and construction projects approved before voter approval of the district in 2007 and the subsequent payment by ESD to cover incurred debt for individual departments.

Instances include construction of the Red Springs VFD, purchase of two parcels totaling less than three acres by the Bullard VFD for $305,000 (June 2006 and June 2008) and $82,000 in cost overruns for Whitehouse Station No. 2, which sits vacant.

Mrs. Guthrie said the majority of fire departments are cooperating with the district but that some fire chiefs have and continue to disregard state law. She said Bateman was part of the solution and holding department's accountable.

Bateman "was asking the tough questions and demanding answers and nobody on this (commissioners) court wants to deal with the ship being rocked," she said. "They want everything to go smoothly, but that means the firefighters get their way and don't have to be accountable to taxpayers."

Cherokee County pays Bullard and Troup VFDs $22,836 per year for fire and emergency services. Mrs. Guthrie said the stations were billing the district for expenses while putting the Cherokee County fee into department accounts. She said Troup ended that practice after the issue was brought up by the board.

Bateman said it was never the intention of the board to stop Bullard VFD from entering Cherokee County in emergencies. He said the action was made to recoup money from Cherokee County and Bullard for services rendered.

"It's not Smith County taxpayers' responsibility to subsidize their fire protection," he said.

Warr said his concern is public safety and that the board's decision left officials in Cherokee County and Bullard in a quandary regarding emergency responders in the area. Having Bullard VFD in violation of its contract with ESD for entering Cherokee County and portions of Bullard without input from officials there was not in the best interest of public safety, he said.

"This is a big public safety issue," he said. "There has to be a solution that protects the community and is fair to everyone involved."

Bateman questions the legality of the commissioners court action to rescind his appointment after reappointing him last week. He said he may file for an opinion with the Texas Attorney General.


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