The Hood County Commissioners Court approved the purchase of new apparatuses and radios for the Granbury Volunteer Fire Department, reimbursed Granbury VFD for the purchase of its tanker, and approved the donation of funds to Texas EMS to be used toward the purchase of an ambulance during a regularly scheduled meeting Jan. 9.
Hood County Fire Marshal Jeff Young explained during the meeting the Granbury VFD was in need of five 3,000-gallon tanker trucks and five 2,000-gallon pumper tankers/fire engines from Siddons-Martin, the vendor he believed was the “best value for the dollar.”
The five tankers are quoted from Siddons-Martin for up to $2.46 million, while the five custom cab pumper tanker/fire engines were quoted for up to $4.47 million, bringing the total for all to $7,168,700. A discount of $460,000 for paying half the purchase price up front brings the actual total to $6,735,700.
“I'm gonna say that none of these trucks are under contract at this time, so the cost may fluctuate a little bit up or down,” Young said, during the meeting. “Based on the estimates that I got from Siddons-Martin, I went with the high end of their estimate, so there could actually be some real-life savings on top of that as well.”
Young added that with the new vehicles, he would also need to order 10 Tri-band radios for each truck, totaling $63,407.50.
“I did speak with Commissioner (Nannette) Samuelson yesterday. I did ask for 10 radios for the 10 trucks. Some of these trucks are going to be replacing others, and I won't need to purchase radios for those trucks if it works out that way,” he said. “But looking at a 36-month delivery time, a lot could change between now and then. If I don't need 10 radios when the trucks are delivered, then I'm not going to purchase 10 radios.”
On Young’s proposal, he also requested the court consider reimbursing Granbury VFD $334,000 for the purchase of the 3,000-gallon tanker in early 2023. He added he would like the court to consider providing Texas EMS $350,000 to be used toward the purchase of a new ambulance cab and chassis.
The total estimated cost of the requests exercising pre-pay options is $7,483,107.50, while the total estimated cost without pre-pay options is $7,916,107.50.
Jim Sabonis, Hood County finance advisor, addressed the court with his recommendation of where the funds could be derived from — a simple strategic plan involving tax notes.
"What we're proposing is that the county issues a three-year tax note,” he explained. “The tax note is a debt issue authorized by our Texas statutes. It allows you to fund anything that the county has issued debt for by simply approving an order. The really key point about it is that it is limited to a seven-year amortization, and it's meant for specifically things of this nature.”
Sabonis explained that if the court approved the tax note, he would organize a competitive bid process, where the findings would be presented to the Hood County Commissioners Court Tuesday, Feb. 13. The winning bid would then be submitted to the attorney general and the funds would be available on March 12.
“We've studied the different proposals and believe this is the most efficient proposal, and it puts a position with the county where if they choose to fund something next year, it gives them an opportunity to deal with it,” Sabonis said. “In summary, it’s a very straightforward plan."
Hood County resident Tina Brown then had a concern regarding the verbiage of the donation to Texas EMS.
"I believe Texas EMS has an exclusivity contract with the county,” Young said. “Parts of that contract allowed for them to ask for a subsidy and/or the purchase of an ambulance. The verbiage was put in there, because if the county buys the ambulance, we've now become an ambulance owner. If we donate the funds to Texas EMS, and they purchase the ambulance using the money, we'd be out of subsidy. We're giving them subsidy money for them to use the way they see fit. But it would be toward the purchase of an ambulance — that way we don't own the ambulance.”
Precinct 2 Commissioner Nannette Samuelson commented that a better word instead of donating would be “subsidizing.”
"This county is in a very unique position,” replied Precinct 1 Commissioner Kevin Andrews. “There are two others in Texas that does not subsidize our EMS service in any way. Parker County, they run their ambulance service through the hospital district. Paid for by taxes. Erath County owns their ambulance service. Johnson County except for Cleburne, Keene, and Joshua, EMS provides ambulance service to the rest of the county. Paying for ambulance service through a government subsidy is very, very common, and we have been very fortunate that there's been no subsidy whatsoever going to our ambulance service in Hood County.”
Brown also questioned why the court was reimbursing Granbury VFD for the purchase of the tanker.
“I know some of the fire departments have their own apparatus and some are county-owned, so since they bought it, why are we reimbursing them? Or why would we consider that?” she asked.
“They don’t have any assets,” Andrews replied. “Granbury Volunteer Fire Department doesn't have an asset to borrow money against. Whenever they got this new tanker, they had to go take some extraordinary methods to get the loan through on this truck — what they asked — and they will put a contract in there that this truck will stay in service in Hood County for a duration. But they can borrow money against it to buy another truck to use their subsidy in the future to buy more vehicles and build their fleet. It's basically giving them collateral, which they don't have right now.”
Andrews said he also asked each fire department what their biggest need was and five of the departments revealed they needed new tankers.
“I’m just trying to figure out if we were going to buy a tanker for the Granbury Volunteer Fire Department, and we didn't and they bought it instead, why are we reimbursing them? We haven't reimbursed other departments for equipment, have we?” Brown asked.
“This is what Granbury asked us,” Andrews said. “Like I said, whenever I went around and asked everybody, instead of saying, ‘Yeah, buy me a tanker,’ it's similar to that. This is Granbury’s portion of the project here is just to fund that tanker.”
As the court continued the public speaker comments, Hood County resident Mark Lowery said he was “100% behind the Granbury Volunteer Fire Department” and the first responders. He added that a couple of years ago, a vote was brought to the table on whether to have a “full-time career” fire department.
"The court voted against that,” he said. “It was never presented to the voters."
Lowery quoted Precinct 3 Commissioner Jack Wilson as stating that “70% of the fire departments in the United States are volunteer.”
"That sounds very, very good, but if you look at it, there's 19,500 incorporated cities in the United States today and 76% of those cities are less than 5,000 people; 92% are less than 10,000, so thank goodness, we're still small-town USA,” Lowery said. “There are 29,452 fire departments in the country and 18,873 are all volunteers, while 5,335 are mostly volunteers. That's 82% of our fire departments that are mostly volunteer.”
He explained that in the last 10 years, the number of volunteers have dropped by 139,700, adding that fire departments are having a tough time getting and retaining volunteers.
“My point in all of this is I think we can all admit that we got behind the eight ball on Highway 377 expansion in Hood County. I think we can all say we got behind the eight ball on the wastewater treatment plant within this community,” he said. “But what I encourage the Commissioners Court to do is right now, let's start looking at the feasibility of going to a hybrid volunteer fire department and a career fire department. Let's do some analysis now in early 2024, so we're not behind the eight ball, three years, four years, five years, 10 years down the road and you have to make a decision immediately without having the analytical on the fiscal responsibility.”
Hood County resident Michael Davis — who identified himself as a professional firefighter/EMT rescue tech — said in no way is he against first responders. However, he said he was against Andrews putting the Granbury VFD item on the agenda because of his new role as Lipan’s fire chief.
"That's like insider trading,” he said. “What this town needs is schools; not more apparatuses. It blows my mind that you're Lipan's fire chief and you're putting this on the agenda. My professional opinion is this should've been an ESD (Emergency Services District) a long time ago with the call volume and response area; it's ridiculous that it’s a volunteer department, but we don't want to raise taxes, right? What you should do if you had morals and a sense of responsibility, and a little bit of ethics and integrity is recuse yourself from this vote. But I bet you won't.”
Andrews responded that when he was running for commissioner, he made a “very clear campaign,” that he had a focus on emergency services.
“We've been analyzing this looking at this thing and trying to come up with what the best way forward is for four years,” he explained. “I stepped back in as Lipan's fire chief in October, because there's a serious need going on there. I don't know if I need to apologize for waking up at two o'clock in the morning to go out and try to save somebody's life, trying to put their house (fire) out, or meet them out there in a bar ditch and try to take care of their medical needs until EMS gets there. I don't see that that's a conflict of interest. There's nobody in this room that doesn't understand I have a major focus on emergency services, and I want to see things moving forward.”
Andrews also explained that the Lipan Fire Department doesn’t make the same home runs or have the same call volume as Hood County. He said Lipan is not getting a new engine and argued it should be given to another department that has a high call volume.
"I'm not looking for anything that puts Lipan above everybody. But I am standing behind these emergency services. I am standing behind the fact that this county needs these vehicles,” he said.
He added that if the county staffed all 10 volunteer fire departments, the cost would be about $25 million.
"Don't think that because it's a volunteer (department) that this is a second-run organization, because it absolutely is not second run, and I would dare say the value that you get from this fire department compared to what it would cost the taxpayer is extraordinary,” he concluded.
Precinct 4 Commissioner Dave Eagle explained that a few years ago, one local fire department brought forth the concept of starting a petition to move to an ESD. He said he spoke to every volunteer fire department — nine at the time — and he said seven of the nine departments wished to stay as a volunteer fire department.
Eagle also commented that in moving all 10 fire departments to an ESD, there would have to be five members appointed to the board of directors for each department — adding up to 45 board members in total.
"I know that Commissioner Andrews is the most experienced on this court dealing with hands-on with volunteer fire departments, and I can tell you right now — and you can believe it or not — he did not go and become chief of that department because he wanted to. He had to or he felt that he had to because there was no one there to do it, and I agree with him 100%,” Eagle said. “And there is absolutely nothing wrong with him being on that volunteer fire department as the chief and being on this commissioner's court. Nothing, because we looked into that. He was concerned about that. You find a law that's different, you let us know.”
Samuelson commented that she has heard several discussions about the potential benefits of having a paid fire department. However, she said she would need to see the “numbers” cost-wise of what it would take to pay a full-time staff as well as benefits like insurance, retirement and workers compensation.
"All of that analysis has to be done and presented to the voters, and as far as I know, there's just been a lot of talk about how we should do it, but I haven't seen any numbers along those lines,” she said. “And then again, you know, what do the fire departments themselves want?”
Young then threw out a “bare bones minimum option” that had been discussed with the court in the past, where the firefighters would be compensated volunteers.
“It's not benefits, it's not retirement, it's not insurance. It's not anything other than giving them $125 to sit at a station for 12 hours,” he explained. “If we did that in all 12 stations, you're looking at an annual budget north of $2.2 million just for compensated volunteers, and that's just barely scratching the surface.”
“That's a discussion,” Andrews said. “These are options that are being looked at.”
“So, if there's an interested group of people that would like to take on that analysis and bring it to the court, I'm all ears,” Samuelson said.
Hood County Judge Ron Massingill brought the conversation back to the topic at hand, which included paying half the pre-pay option cost for the GVFD equipment and donations up front totaling $3,741,553.75.
Wilson made the motion to approve the tax note for the full $7,483,107.50 for the discounted purchase of the Granbury Volunteer Fire Department equipment, the reimbursement to GFVD for the tanker totaling $334,000, to donate $350,000 to Texas EMS for the purchase of a new ambulance, and the eventual purchase of up to 10 Tri-band radios at a cost of $63,407.50. The motion also involved providing half the payment for the tankers and pumper/tankers up front to Siddons-Martin, generating a total savings of $433,000.
The motion carried unanimously with Andrews abstaining from the vote.