While the proposed Bell County Emergency Services District #1 serving the Salado area would be the first in Bell County, our neighbor to the south is no stranger to them. Williamson County has 12 ESDs serving communities as small as Weir to larger departments like Sam Bass, which serves the western part of Round Rock and has two fire stations.
The closest ESD is ESD#5 in Williamson County, serving the Jarrell area. The district was formed in 2001, when Jarrell only had a volunteer fire department. The ESD has a property tax of $0.10 per $100 valuation, which is the maximum allowed by law. That tax generates about $1.4 million in revenue for the operating budget. Another $600,000 comes from the reserve fund.
The district spends about $1.3 million on personnel costs. With that, it has three shifts with four or five firefighters on staff for each of those shifts. It also has a Chief, a Marshal, an Operations Chief and two administrative assistants on staff. It spends another $240,000 on supplies, including $55,000 on fleet supplies, $40,000 on emergency equipment, $62,000 on technology and $11,000 on radio equipment. It spent another $70,000 on capital acquisitions such as major equipment. Finally, it spends about $345,000 per year on debt service for its fire station, fire apparatus for two crews and a fire engine loan.
Liberty Hill is another nearby ESD that has flourished since it was created in 2001. Today, the Liberty Hill ESD has an annual budget of about $5 million. The ESD also has two fire stations and three shifts at those fire stations with a total of 11 or 12 on staff for each shift.
Both of these fire departments serve areas similar in size as Salado. Currently, the Salado Volunteer Fire Department serves an area of 116 square miles with roughly the same boundaries as Salado ISD.
It does so with an annual budget of less than $150,000. Of that, $50,000 in income comes from the Village of Salado contract. Bell County also pays the VFD for calls it makes in the rural areas. The rest of the SVFD income comes from donations.
The Salado VFD pays no firefighters to staff either of its stations. “We respond from work or home,” Chief Shane Berrier said. “If no one can get away from work, then it may be a long time before we can respond.”
“We want to be able to staff the fire station with two or more firefighters for 24 hour coverage,” Berrier said. “This would really decrease our response time.”
The formation of an ESD and its property tax would also allow the department to hire an administrator.
The proposal on the ballot is for the formation of the Bell County Emergency Services District #1 with a maximum tax rate of $0.10 per $100. For a $250,000 home, this would mean a new property tax of about $250 per year.
According to SAFE-D, the State Association of Fire and Emergency Districts, “ESD tax revenues may be used to hire full-time emergency personnel, contract with other entities that have full-time fire and emergency medical departments, and/or purchase new equipment and facilities. More importantly for some areas, ESDs can contract with volunteer fire and emergency medical services departments and provide a stable funding source for these entities as well.”
“The establishment of an ESD may result in a better Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating within the ESD service area, and lower insurance premiums for businesses and homeowners,” according to the Emergency Services District Operating Guide published by the Texas Department of Rural Affairs in 2013 (prior to becoming the Office of Rural Affairs within the Texas Department of Agriculture).
The Salado VFD service area currently has two ISO ratings: 5 for the Village of Salado and 8 for the rural areas.
The ISO rating is based on four factors: 10% for the 911 communications, including response times; 40% for the water supply and availability; 50% for the fire department and an additional 5% for Exception Addendum items including fire codes, inspections, fire education, construction code and other criteria.
According to the ISO website, “Fire Suppression factors include engine and ladder companies in service, apparatus pump capacity, equipment carried on apparatus, number of personnel staffing apparatus, number of reserve apparatus and equipment carried on each, fire station locations and their effect on response times, training of personnel, training facilities and their use.”
Berrier said that the Salado areas could see an improvement in their ISO ratings (resulting in lower insurance premiums), but added cautiously, “it would be a point, maybe two points but years down the road.”
Liberty Hill has an ISO PPC rating of 5/5Y classification. WCESD#4 has a rating of 4/4Y for its service area. Jarrell has an ISO PPC rating of 3/3Y.