SMITH COUNTY, Texas (KETK) – For years, the Emergency Services District No. 2 has been serving the citizens of Smith County, protecting more than 92,000 people.
Their mission statement on the department’s website states that ESD 2 “is to be the leading emergency service district by meeting the needs of our community in fire prevention, fire suppression, rescue operations, and emergency medical response in the most cost-effective manner possible.”
The last line. “in the most cost-effective manner possible,” is something Craig Licciardi takes seriously. He considers himself a watchdog for taxpayers.
“They are out of control as far as spending, they knew some things were going on that needed people to get involved to kind of try to put a stop to it or make them do the right thing,” said Licciardi, a former firefighter.
Licciardi became concerned when he spotted what he calls an unusually high percentage increase in salaries.
“The budget for this year is 220% higher than what it was last year, which is almost entirely made up of increases in the salaries for the payroll for the ESD 2 administration,” Licciardi said.
KETK examined the numbers. According to Licciardi’s research, everyone working under the ESD 2 administration received a pay raise. The increase in pay for the fire chief is just one example.
During the 2019-2020 fiscal year, the chief was paid $67,549. Then for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, his salary increase to $100,000 — a $33,000 raise.
“Other ESD staff have raised anywhere between 23 and 60-percent on a yearly basis which is unheard of in any industry to have a raise of that amount,” Licciardi said.
Licciardi started his career as a volunteer firefighter. He says he wants to continue looking out for the community in terms of not only it’s physical health but it’s financial health.
On Oct. 22, Licciardi, along with East Texas-based Grassroots America: We the People submitted a public information request, asking for the minutes from the September ESD-2 board meeting.
“In an email to Commissioners Melton and Perryman, with Chief of Operations Terry Rozell copied, we stated that the minutes should be available for public review before this evening’s meeting since tonight’s agenda declares that you will discuss, consider and take any necessary action on personnel and employment for SCESD2. We made this request because it is of particular interest to the taxpaying public to have access to the minutes of the September 28, 2020 meetings where the hiring of ESD2 personnel was previously discussed and decisions made. Without those posted minutes, the public cannot possibly be adequately informed.“Letter addressed to Elected SCESD2 Commissioners and appointed Commissioner McKeethan, from JoAnn Fleming, Executive Director of Grassroots America-We the People
According to the minutes, which have since been posted online, the board approved the hiring of 18 firefighters, but according to Licciardi and We the People leader JoAnnFleming, “We understand that Mr. Rozell has made employment offers to 30 potential paid firefighters.”
“Not only did the board president, Randy Melton, not only was he aware that the chief was aware of the excess of 18 were approved. He didn’t attempt to stop it, and he didn’t inform anyone else or the other commissioners what was going on,” Licciardi said.
Licciardi believes the fire department across Smith County needs more people, in order to improve response times. Volunteers make up an important part of the force, but some people like Licciardi worry they could be pushed aside despite their dedication.
“I believe what’s happening is the chief is attempting to push the volunteers completely out and turn it into a 24/7 professional firefighter organization across the county,” explained Licciardi.
Former ESD 2 board president Randy Melton, who recently lost a re-election campaign, says it’s all a misunderstanding.
“Our fire district is made up of a combination department. We not only have volunteers but we have paid staff as well, working together to give a good response time, faster response time, you know saves lives,” Melton explained.
When ESD 2 leaders met on Nov. 2, the board approved the transfer of $630,000 from its sales tax account to the General Fund, specifically to be used for paid staff.
“A year ago we went out and asked the citizens to approve a sales tax. We went to referendum sales tax and told the citizens at that time, we want to use the additional money from the sales tax provide for additional staffing,” Melton said.
In the current fiscal year, the district receives about $5 million a year from property taxes.
“This year, we were able, since the sales tax passed, to lower the property tax rate about a penny and a half. So, what we told the citizens what we would do is, if you pass this we did lower the property tax rate, but we do have additional sources of revenue this time that we’re balancing the two revenues between sales tax versus property tax, which gives us the ability to hire more additional staff,” Melton said.
Living in Smith County for more than 25 years, Johnny Brown has dedicated his life to the service and wants more transparency from the board.
“The check register, which lists where the money is spent, you know like they pay Good Year $5-thousand dollars for tires, that hasn’t been updated since June of 2018. You know to me, as a tax-payer, and even a citizen, if I wanted to see where my money was going I could click on there and see it. The budget, yea, it’s pretty well completed except it doesn’t list sales tax revenue,” explained Brown.
Brown ran against Melton for the Commissioner seat in the Nov. 3, election, and won by nearly 4,000 votes, and is set to take office in January 2021. Brown says his first priority is to get volunteers and paid staff on the same page, in order to ensure tax-payers feel confident and safe.