General election ballots

Election ballots

A Johnson County Emergency Services District No. 1 proposition on the May 1 ballot calls for an increase in sales tax, but only in parts of the county. It does not call for a property tax increase.

Public Information Officer Simon VanDyk and Communications Officer Wendy Duncan, both of whom are charged with disseminating information about the election, presented an update on the matter during Monday’s meeting of the Johnson County Commissioners Court.

The proposition’s placement on the May ballot requires no approval from the court given that JCESD commissioners have already called for the election.

Johnson County commissioners, however, officially acknowledged the election during their Monday meeting.

The measure, if passed, will assist the ESD and its 16 associated fire departments in several ways, Duncan said. It will also, she added, improve area fire and EMT services and add to local sales tax revenues.

JCESD, a local governmental agency, already collects property tax at a rate of 6 cents per $100 of value from all county residents save those in Cleburne and Burleson, which are not part of the ESD. The ESD has the ability, pending voter approval, to increase that rate up to 10 cents per $100, Duncan and VanDyk said, but added that the members do not wish to pursue that route.

“I want to make sure everyone knows that we’re not considering ad valorem, property tax,” Duncan said. “Property tax will not be on the ballot in May. This is about sales tax.”

County Commissioner Larry Woolley asked Duncan to repeat that a little louder.

“[Sales tax] is a great option for ESDs because people traveling through the district, if they’re visiting here, if they work here, can contribute to that sales tax and help pay for services that they might actually use,” Duncan said. “So again, this isn’t asking voters to increase their property tax rate.”

JCESD funds 14 area volunteer fire departments in addition to two JCESD stations. They also contract with a medical director and a support rehab for firefighters.

Why it’s needed

The current property tax rate of 6 cents per $100 accounts for almost all of JCESD’s budget and is only augmented by initiatives by the individual departments such as fundraisers and grants.

“But those are not consistent from year to year and so cannot be relied upon,” Duncan said.

Meanwhile, Johnson County has grown more than 10 percent over the past five years while calls for service over the same time period have increased more than 20 percent.

The proposed sales tax increase, up to 2 cents in some parts of the county, would realize roughly $1.1 million in additional sales tax revenues for JCESD annually, Duncan and VanDyk said. Possibly more, both said, given that the projections don’t include possible sales tax revenues from online sales.

Who it affects

Texas caps sales tax at 8.25 percent, an amount parts of the county and all of the cities are already at. The proposition therefore affects only those residents, mainly in unincorporated county areas, where the rate still sits below 8.25 percent. If passed, sales tax in those areas would increase by an amount of up to 2 cents to bring the rate up to 8.25 percent. Some areas have 2 cents to work with while others have less, VanDyk said. Voting on the proposition will be open to all county residents except those in Cleburne and Burleson since they are not part of the ESD.

County Judge Roger Harmon asked what would happen with the sales tax rate, provided the proposition succeeds, should one of the cities, all of which are already at 8.25 percent, annex into unincorporated areas. 

For all but Cleburne and Burleson it would make no difference, JCESD Executive Director Tom Foster said, given that they are already part of the ESD.

Such a scenario could be a question for Cleburne or Burleson, Foster said, but added that he and officials of those respective cities have already began talks concerning who would capture what percentage of the sales tax should that happen.

VanDyk added that such situations will likely be less common in the future because of recent legislative action limiting cities ability to annex.

What it would do

The additional funding will be used to address recruitment and retention, limited budgets coupled with rising costs and aging equipment, Duncan said.

In real terms that translates to stipends for volunteers in certain cases, hiring of a training coordinator, establishment of a district supply commissary, dispatch upgrades and more.

Stipends, Foster stressed, will not equate to fully paid volunteer departments throughout the county. 

Such will likely never occur.

Rather stipends would be used for certain discrete purposes, Duncan said.

“Often when people want to volunteer they have to use their own funds,” Duncan said. “Many can’t afford that so can’t volunteer, but if they had a stipend to help with those costs.”

VanDyk, who previously served as a volunteer firefighter, agreed.

“I have been sitting on the bumper of a fire truck in full bunker gear seeing smoke in the distance, me and two others sitting on the front of the bumper waiting because we didn’t have an engineer to drive the truck to get to the fire,” VanDyk said. “So, in situations like that, what if there was a paid driver their during days or 24/7 so that when those volunteers show up they know they’re going to be able to get to that fire?”

Foster said that area firefighters when polled rated the training coordinator and personal protection equipment aspects more important than stipends.

“A coordinator would not replace the training done in the individual departments,” Foster said. “It would just be a coordinator to help get everybody on the same page.”

Commissioner Larry Woolley remarked that some businesses in unincorporated county areas mistakenly collect 8.25 percent sales tax even though rates in those areas are lower. That money for now goes to Austin where it sits in a “black hole”

Better VanDyk argued to keep as much sales tax local rather than Austin bound.

“Nobody wants to see additional property tax,” VanDyk said. “So, if this is something voters will support it will allow [JCESD] to help modernize our volunteer departments and train better without impacting the property tax rate in the county.”

Informational webinars and, depending on COVID-19 conditions, possible town hall events will be announced soon to detail the proposition, VanDyk said.

For now, residents are encouraged to visit johnsoncountyfire.org to learn more.

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