Granite Shoals Council fighting financial fire

Glynis Crawford Smith/The Highlander

Caught doing something good: Granite Shoals City Council Member Anita Hisey, right, was spotted picking up litter on Phillips Ranch Road recently by former Mayor Dennis Maier, left. Calling himself a "self-appointed committee of one," surprised her at the Tuesday night, Aug. 8, council meeting with an impromptu "Trash Picker-Upper" award, a long-handled grabber to help with any future impulse to clean up what "inconsiderate litterers" leave behind.

By Glynis Crawford Smith

The Highlander

The Granite Shoals City Council has faced a challenging year of unknowns surrounding costs of road repair, but another issue fanning the flames of financial woes has been rising fire department costs.

At their meeting Tuesday, Aug. 8, it was clear council members and staff consider a new stream of financial support from surrounding communities the only remedy.

Granite Shoals Fire Rescue provides fire protection for the adjacent City of Highland Haven and the large, outlying rural communities of Burnet County Emergency Service District #3 (ESD3), each looking at the end of a contract for services that ends Sept. 30.

“My view is, they need to pay their fair share,” said City Manager Ken Nickel, looking specifically at ESD3. “They collect 7.5 cents per $100,000 valuation from their property owners. They have a fund balance of $400,000.

“When the ESD began, they were partners,” he said. “Now they seem to be considering themselves customers.”

Granite Shoals drew a line in the sand with the rural areas once before. In 2011 they said they could no longer respond to fires outside the city. The result was the creation of ESD3 by voters in the district and a contract such as the one under which Highland Haven operates now.

The rub is the budget schedule before that date for all three entities. During all the Granite Shoals workshops, the fire department has been the biggest unknown and that continued Thursday, Aug. 10, when the council met to set a “not-to-exceed” tax rate.

Even though the issue was unresolved after a Thursday afternnon meeting with the ESD3 Board of Directors, the council pledged not to exceed a rate of 0.563.13, or 56.313 cents per $100,000, a rate just a fraction below the effective rate, the rate that would yield the same ad valorem tax revenue as the current rate.

The council will meet Aug. 22 for a public hearings on the Vision Statement, Comprehensive Plan and three annexation proposals but continued discussion of the budget and tax rate are not anticipated for that meeting. Hearings and continued discussion on those matters are set for Aug. 24 and Aug. 31, with possible adoption on Sept. 7.

Rising fire department costs come down to the dilemmas of falling recruitment and response when volunteers work far from their homes. So far, the city has patched holes in coverage by adding three full-time firefighters and seven part-time firefighters in addition to Chief Austin Stanphill, who for years was the only full-time employee.

Volunteer membership, that once exceeded 30, has fallen to 15 members.

“We had a fire recently for which no volunteers could respond,” said Nickel said in the Aug. 8 meeting. “We recently had a fire to which no volunteers could respond. Of course, we got interlocal support from other departments, but we are concerned for citizens' safety. Our police officers have even trained on hoses, but we need the three more full-time firefighters that are proposed this year to have two on duty, 24/7.”

“Operating costs for the fire department this year were $490,492,” he said. “Next year we estimate it at $642,499. The whole amount of that is the addition of three firefighters with benefits such as retirement and health insurance.”

New equipment, new personnel and fire station maintenance, all have been added without an additional increase to the contracts for the other areas served.

Mayor Carl Brugger recalled the early days of the formation of ESD3, saying the board then agreed to support based on property value.

“If they don't want to ante up and pay appraised value, I am not sure I would be in favor of staying (as their fire service provider).”

“With risk there is value,” said Council Member Todd Holland, referring to all the budget items that relate to maintaining public safety and building a reserve fund for replacements. “We are taking risks.”

“They need to understand...you have to have two firefighters to go into a fire and two outside (for support),” said Council Member Shirley King.

Those are the facts Nickel and Brugger carried to the meeting of the ESD3 board meeting Thursday, but they came away without a final agreement.

Asked after the Aug. 8 council meeting but before the ESD3 Board meeting, board president Steve Tatom said the timing during the budget crunch probably would require the board to have at least one extra meeting.

“We have had a great relationship with Granite Shoals,” he said. “We have been very happy with the service provided and we are confident we can continue that relationship.”

The youngest of Burnet County's emergency service districts, ESD#9, lies in an unincorporated area bustling with small businesses and was able this year to vote in a sales tax to its income stream. But ESD#3, as most other districts, relies on a single infusion of property tax. The maximum property tax rate a service district can impose is 10 cents per $100,000. A few in the county began operation at the maximum, but all promise to reduce the rate as possible.

The election to create the district recorded 174 votes for and 105 against among registered voters. But the board answers to many absentee owners, not registered to vote there, but who pay taxes in the district that stretches west from Wirtz Dam Road to the Burnet-Llano county line and includes territory north and south of Ranch to Market Road 1431.

The ESD3 began with a rate set at 0.0875, or 8.75 cents per $100,000. In 2015, it went to 0.0855 and, last year, it dropped to .075. The revenue supports a contract that began in 2012 at $140,816 and in 2016, was $155,434.

“We have a working fund of $215,000, with two quarterly payments remaining ($38,858 each),” he said. “Aside from our rainy day funds that total $235,000, we have to live on that until the next tax season.”

Granite Shoals and the ESD have a common budget variable that goes beyond expenditures on the fire department—property value.

The new property values reported by the Burnet Central Appraisal District show property in Highland Haven valued at $125,804; in Granite Shoals, $385,931,582 and in ESD#3, $350,017,675.

But, the peninsular subdivisions of Web Isle and Beaver Island are in the process of voluntary annexation by Granite Shoals. Until now, they have been part of the ESD, with Web Isle newly valued at $18,133,732 and Beaver Island, at $39,431,759. Their loss would put the ESD value at $282,452,185.

The council heard comments on Tuesday from two citizens concerned about Single-Family Residential (R-1) zoning regulations, one proposing a modest manufactured home and another looking to build a 2,000-square-foot waterfront home for $850,000.

Emanuel Riojas, of Kingsvalley and Kingspoint Drives, told the council his father's neighborhood was full of mobile homes when it was annexed as R-1, where only site-built homes are now not allowed.

“What is one more mobile home?” he asked. “I love this city. I have lived here with my wife and two kids for 27 years. I have good credit. I want my own house.”

Eric Carvajal of Hill Circle South owns property with a challenging topography and has run in to a dead end over attached garage requirements.

“I am in real estate and I have sold more property in Granite Shoals than anyone else, but I have missed sales, too,” he said. “City policies and procedures (and rules against short-term rentals) hamper development, especially of residential lots on the waterfront.”

He went on to declare he couldn't support anything about a city with such policies, including road improvements, and tendered his resignation from the Road Bond Education Committee on the spot.

As part of the consent agenda, the council appointed Jason Hinds to the Airport Advisory Committee. Although the meeting went on until 9:45 p.m., with long discussions, most action items on agenda were continued, including changes to the camping ordinance and recreational vehicles in the city, a fee for roll-off dumpsters and a water rate study.

They did authorize city staff to apply for a grant through the Capital Area Planning Council of Governments (CAPCOG) to reimburse expenses of the April 2017 City Wide Clean Up Day.

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