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Gregg, Rusk county voters approve tax hikes for emergency services district | Local News

Voters in southern Gregg and northern Rusk counties have approved a tax measure that will increase funding for emergency services in the area.

The proposition approved Tuesday will raise the sales and use tax rate by up to 2% in areas of Gregg County Emergency Services District No. 1 where the rate isn’t already set at the state’s maximum rate of 8.25%.

Officials said the additional revenue will fund pay raises and training for firefighters. The district aims to improve staffing at its fire stations.

The proposition passed with 58.98% of the vote in Gregg County and 63.53% in Rusk County. The measure was on the ballot only in voting precincts served by the district, which includes two Gregg County precincts and parts of six Rusk County precincts.

In Gregg County, 430 ballots were cast in favor of the measure, and 299 against it. In Rusk County, 364 votes were cast in favor with 209 against, according to unofficial election results.

Texas is home to more than 300 emergency services districts, which are funding mechanisms for fire departments and other first responder agencies. The districts are operated by boards that can collect taxes and call for tax elections.

The 102-square-mile emergency services district No. 1 was formed in 2001. About 8,500 people live within it, according to its website. Its funding supports the Elderville-Lakeport Volunteer Fire Department.

The fire department has four stations, but because of its staffing levels, not all of those stations are fully staffed ‘round-the-clock, said Matthew Harris, a Longview attorney who serves as legal counsel for Gregg County’s three emergency service districts.

“The immediate need that we’ve talked about addressing is the staffing issue — making sure that the firefighters are paid competitively so that we can get and retain good firefighters because some of our neighboring counties, like Smith County, tend to pay a bit more,” Harris said. “The passage of the sales tax will hopefully let us put those things into action now.”

Elderville-Lakeport Fire Chief Pat Owens said increased staffing would improve response times and allow the department to better handle call volume.

Higher staffing levels also could improve the district’s Insurance Services Office score, or ISO rating, which a majority home insurance companies use to determine insurance costs. Most of the district has an ISO rating of 2. The highest rating a district can achieve is 1.

The department is staffed mostly by unpaid volunteers, but also by some volunteers who are paid hourly, Owens said. Compensated volunteers have to meet certification requirements.

The department would like to recruit more volunteers, Owens said. It recently made changes that would allow people who live farther away from the district to volunteer. That decision has been successful, he said.

“These volunteers, they’re getting harder and harder to find or to encourage to get in the fire department because you’re competing with their family, wives, kids and school,” Owens said.

In a document posted on ESD No. 1’s website, officials said the district’s population and economy have grown in the past decade, resulting in higher call volume and greater expenses for the department.

Harris declined to speculate how much money the tax increase is projected to bring in, saying that projections often are inaccurate when factoring in online purchases.

Voters in Rusk County Emergency Services District No. 1 approved an identical sales tax proposition to increase funding for their district. The measure passed with 53.55% of the votes, or 2,083 votes. Ballots cast against the measure totaled 1,807, or 46.45%.

In a document on its website, Rusk County officials said the increased revenue would fund volunteer recruitment, training and communications infrastructure.

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