Letter to the community: ESD #2 board addresses concerns

The citizens of Hull, Daisetta and later Raywood voted for the creation of ESD No. 2 over 40 years ago. The community decided to have an ESD back then. This is not something new.

Health and Safety Code Chapter 775 outlines how to create an ESD, how one should operate, and the requirements imposed by the law. Voters specifically authorized the district to levee property taxes, bonds and/or sales tax, and where the ESD receives our funding for fire service dollars for our area.

Currently, a state maximum of 10 cents per $100 property valuation is levied for fire service. As appointed commissioners, we are sworn in to oversee these funds, and the operational policy of fire service in this district. It is our fiduciary responsibility to ensure that the funds are going to provide fire and emergency services in our district.

Your fire department is Liberty County Emergency Services District No. 2, HD Fire/Rescue, owned by the citizens. The ESD is a governmental entity, not a traditional non-profit fire department incorporated. It is a separate entity that is not bound by your tax dollars. They are merely a contractor the ESD uses to fund and provide community fire services.

As one of the four ESDs in our county, we have several avenues to provide these fire services. We can contract with a service or service provider of choice to provide the equipment and/or manpower. We can contract with other ESDs or municipalities. We can create our own volunteer or paid department. And lastly, we can utilize a combination of any or all of the above. You just remember we have to do whatever is necessary to provide the services with the funds we receive. We also have automatic mutual aid agreements in place with our neighboring district.

As ESDs were originally formed, the most obvious choice was to contract with existing volunteer departments. The ESD started paying the bill and, by statute, obtained ownership of any property purchased or maintained with ESD funds. That model worked fairly well in the 80s and 90s. We can remember 16-year-olds jumping up from English class to head to the station. The volunteer department has always been like a family, a close brotherhood that protects each other and the community, but also like the Wild West, flying by the seat of your pants, lax rules and questionable safety, an almost secret club that doesn’t want anyone involved in their business. Those good old guys and gals have always been looked up to as heroes. The protect each other and their department.

Fast forward to today, and we have seen not only in our district, but across the state and nation, a rapid decline in volunteerism. The volunteer fire department that you remember from your youth no longer exists. Fish fries and barbecue fundraisers certainly get the community involved and help the district, but that money is barely a rounding error on our budget.

As technology progresses, along with safety and liability concerns, so does the cost of operations. Not only that, but we have a growing population in our county as urban sprawl makes its way to what was once rice fields and piney woods.

In 2020, to properly outfit a firefighter, it started at $3,500 just for basic protective clothing. You can only imagine what the pandemic and current economy have done to these costs. That doesn’t include air packs, specialty equipment and training. Speaking of air packs, everything has a limited life now. We must pay thousands of dollars each year for inspections and maintenance. There is also ladder testing, host testing, service and testing of rescue equipment, not to mention the general maintenance of the trucks and station.

As I quote the HD fire chief, “The ESD board is mismanaging things, trying to run the department like a business. They are involved in our operations. You need to cut the head off of the snake.” Well, sir, that is exactly right.

As we attended training and learned more what the board’s responsibility was, we began to take a closer look at the operations of our contracted service provider, HDVFD. In the past, we have been giving them a blank check. Checks and balances were not in place as required by law. There was no transparency. The leaders of the HDVFD corporation appeared to be voted in on popularity, not chosen based on skills and experience. Some questionable actions were taking place on scenes and en route to incidences.

After consulting with an attorney that specializes in ESD law, we were immediately put on alert. Things had to change, and unfortunately there was no waiting period. We put purchasing process in place and we requested access to reporting mechanisms. As a governmental body, we have to approve members. That means proper background checks and work history. Do they have any training or certifications? Just like a school board, we have the final say in who gets hired. We put out a job description for a part-time fire chief. We had numerous candidates apply and we felt we should at least give the current chief a chance.

Unfortunately, his insubordination was brought into question and disciplinary actions were pending. His public rant is based on feelings and not the facts. One fact we had to reprimand the chief for [was] his personal use of the squad car. This cost the taxpayers over $1,500 in fuel costs just for two months. We had to direct the chief to park the vehicle because the costs were unstainable, and not all used for business.

Technically, we did not terminate any VFD members as they were not part of our organization. We terminated the contract with the VFD. We gave them all opportunity to apply and submit the proper paperwork.

Our board consists of five members. It is not the action of one man but the decision of the body in a whole that passes laws, ordinances, policies and procedures. We are a diverse group with various backgrounds including the fire service, business and law enforcement. As time progresses, the board members may and will change. However, the will of the people has been voted and the district will move forward and hopefully continue to operate within the legal bounds of the law regardless of those at the helm.

We will do whatever is necessary to provide service. If we have to hire day crews, we will do that. If we have to hire a full-time chief, we will do that. If we have to contract with a VFD across the county, we will do that. We will provide and pay for proper maintenance. We will make sure all members have proper gear, even if that means limiting active personnel.

We always welcome support members. There are many jobs in the department besides fighting fire. Unfortunately, some folks don’t see them as glamorous.

The bottom line is that as long as we have funds, we will spend them to protect our citizens. We will provide the best equipment that our budget allows.

We comply with all open meeting and public information laws and regulations. The public is encouraged to attend the monthly board meetings and get involved. We cannot address any specific needs unless we are aware of them.

We must pass an annual budget and receive an audit or compilation each year. Our books are available upon request, or just stop by and see what is going on.

Thank you.

Letter submitted by ESD #2 Board President Johnny Slack

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