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Grassroots: County Officials Must Protect Smith County Taxpayers

 

Editor’s Note: Grassroots America watchdogs present at yesterday’s meeting of the Smith County Commissioners Court report that they witnessed a shocking and troubling “imperial” attitude from some on the court. Part of the responsibility of a public servant is to listen to the people — even when it is something you don’t like to hear. Rules of decorum are one thing, but shutting down public testimony because you don’t like to hear a redress of grievances is quite another. The Smith County Commissioners Court is running the risk of reverting back to the days of the early 90s when citizens were openly scorned by members of the Commissioners Court and paid staff. Persistent watchdogs over the last 20 years have successfully labored to unseat imperial county officials and make county government more transparent and accountable to the people. The attitude displayed by some members of the court and staff yesterday is inviting a public showdown. We hope yesterday was an aberration and folks just got up on the wrong side of the bed. (Commissioner Terry Phillips was absent due to a continuing education class.) 

Grassroots America will not sit by and allow Smith County citizens and taxpayers to be disrespected by any elected official. Citizens should always address elected officials in a respectful manner, but respect is a two way street. Recounting what an elected official has or has not done — as borne out by public record — is not being disrespectful, it is an exercise of the First Amendment. The truthas borne out by public record will be told in Smith County. If the public officials will not allow the truth to be spoken in a public forum before them, then the truth will be told elsewhere and everywhere. We simply will not have a Washington, DC arrogance in Smith County, Texas. We will not. 

Here’s an article from the Tyler Morning Telegraph about yesterday’s meeting. 

Grassroots America tells County Officials — “Protect the taxpayers” 

January 16, 2013

Litigation mentioned as option in dispute

By ADAM RUSSELL, Staff Writer, Tyler Morning Telegraph

A conservative watchdog group warned Smith County commissioners Tuesday of possible litigation by residents against Bullard Fire Department, the Emergency Services District No. 2 and the county for failure to maintain responsibility for taxpayer money.

JoAnn Fleming, executive director of Grassroots America — We the People, said during the commissioners court meeting that the entities may be liable for allowing Bullard Fire Department to act as a first responder inside Cherokee County without reimbursement to Smith County taxpayers.

Mrs. Fleming said taxpayers have paid more than $1.4 million to the Bullard Fire Department since 2007. She said all the entities have a fiduciary responsibility to the Smith County taxpayers.

State law requires entities to reimburse the use of taxpayer assets and money.

“I want everyone to get emergency services, but it’s not appropriate for one taxing entity to use assets and tax dollars in another county without consideration for taxpayers,” she said.

Cherokee County pays Bullard and Troup fire departments $22,836 annually for mutual aid and has done so since the district’s 2007 inception. However, the departments kept the money rather than reimburse the district.

Earlier this year, ESD board members approached Troup and Bullard fire officials regarding the reimbursements. Troup agreed to begin reimbursement. Bullard has not, and during a Dec. 20 ESD meeting, the board gave the department two options — stop providing first responder service to Cherokee County or reimburse the district $50,000 annually — or face termination of their contract.

Bullard Fire Department Fire Chief Keith Newburn said by phone later that he was never asked to reimburse the money paid by Cherokee County until the board made the request. He said he offered to forward the Cherokee County payments to the ESD but was told the department should pay $50,000 per year to respond to out-of-county calls. 

Newburn said he has monitored every call answered by his department since the district’s inception and that the per call average received from Cherokee County was $249. He said negotiating a per call agreement with entities outside Smith County would be acceptable but that the city of Bullard, Bullard ISD and Cherokee County must be part of the conversation.

Former ESD No. 2 board member Brian Bateman came prepared to present a 47-page report, which chronicled the investigation into the costs of cross-county-line emergency responses. He said the investigation showed 25 percent of Bullard’s emergency responses were made outside Smith County.

He calculates Smith County taxpayers have subsidized Cherokee County fire protection with more than $300,000 since 2007.

On Dec. 27, county commissioners reversed a vote two weeks prior to reappoint Bateman. Board member Robert Dear addressed the court Tuesday and said the court has “interfered” with the board’s ability to hold the departments accountable.

“By undercutting your own appointees you are telling other board members that they will be removed if you don’t get your way,” he said.

Dear said it also sends a message to departments that complaining to the court can prevent the board from holding them accountable.

Former ESD president Mitch Henderson said the court’s actions undermine the board’s recent measures to determine the district’s financial state and add accountability and prevent what he called the “great taxpayer money giveaway.”

In 2012, the ESD board determined the district was responsible for more than $8 million in debt. It receives more than $4 million from taxpayers annually based on a tax rate of 8.46 cents per $100 valuation.

County Commissioner Jeff Warr, who led the decision to reverse its appointment of Bateman, said Bullard should reimburse ESD for using county assets and money to provide services in Cherokee County but that threats to terminate the contract undermined reasonable expectations for services that have been historically provided.

Portions of the city of Bullard and its district’s three schools lie within Cherokee County. He said officials were concerned Bullard residents and schools would not receive emergency services.

“By its nature, emergency services are different,” he said. “It’s an emergency and residents and their property should know they are being protected.”

Mrs. Fleming said that is true but that any Smith County taxpayer who feels their tax dollars are being misused by operating without compensation could potentially sue. She said all sides of the argument need to negotiate a fair deal that compensates the ESD for use of assets and money and provides first response and mutual aid to affected areas.

“Taxpayers are upholding their end. They pay their taxes, so these people who have the fiduciary responsibility to make sure taxpayers are getting value for their dollar need to handle their end.”

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