Rockwall County town in showdown with fire department over rising costs

McLendon-Chisholm: Showdown over fire department

MCLENDON-CHISHOLM - Out here in rural Rockwall County, you're as likely to see chickens as you are a car.

But for the residents of this tiny town, the feathers are flying over the local volunteer fire department.

Four years ago, the McLendon-Chisholm City Council agreed to start paying for the fire department to man the station with paid firefighters during daytime hours. Since that time, the costs to fund the fire department have grown exponentially – from $114,000 in 2015 to $320,000 in 2017.

The city balked at paying the cost this year.

“We had the audacity to actually ask questions,” City Council member Scott Turnbull said. “When we started asking questions, the fire department didn’t like it.”

Both sides accused the other of playing politics. Fliers started showing up in people's mailboxes, raising concerns about response times.

Fire Chief Robert Jones said the mayor is out to get him because the fire department opposed the city’s rollback tax election a couple of years ago.

“This is about hatred of me,” Jones said.

Mayor Robert Steinhagen disputed that notion.

“We have challenged them, and they do not like to be challenged," Steinhagen said. "This is an organization that has no accountability. Zero.”

On Tuesday night, the members of the fire department will vote on whether to continue responding to calls in the city. The fire chief said he'll recommend they stop responding within the city limits since the city isn't paying up.

For now, the fire department has been using its reserves to respond to calls within the city limits.

It is a situation that the chief said cannot continue.

“Our intention was to run as long as possible,” Jones said. “The mayor and council’s statements at the most recent meeting to not reimburse the FD for services rendered no matter how long it takes while a contract is being negotiated … has forced us to reconsider how long we will use reserves to service” McClendon-Chisholm.

City officials were caught off guard when they learned from News 8 about the impending vote.

“This is basically, again, strong-arming the people of McLendon-Chisholm,” the mayor said.

Tensions between the city and the fire department began to escalate last fall.

The city demanded that the fire department, which is an independent entity, open up its books. It wanted an audit for the last five years and offered to pay for it.  

“We’re more than happy to do an audit with an audit company of our choosing, not the city’s choosing,”  Jones said.

He said they were willing to agree to pay for an audit going forward, but they were not willing to go back five years.

That didn’t fly with the city.

The fire department gave the city three options: pay the same amount as last year, pay a slightly higher amount for seven-day coverage, or return to an all-volunteer fire department.

In December, the city notified the fire department that they wanted to return to an all-volunteer department and pay about $33,000 annually for fire service, an offer that the fire department rejected.

The contract lapsed Jan. 1.

Jones defended the costs billed to the city, citing the increased hours that paid firefighters man the station.

“It’s directly proportional to the increase in services,” he said.

The fire department services an area that includes the city and an unincorporated area. The city encompasses about one third of the district. The unincorporated area encompasses the remainder.

For that unincorporated area, the county paid about $67,000 to the fire department for service, significantly less than the city. The amount paid by the county has not increased in four years.

To city leaders, it’s evidence that the county is getting a free ride.

The two sides can’t even agree with the call numbers.

The city provided News 8 figures that it says shows the department responds to more calls in the unincorporated areas. The department provided figures showing it’s just the opposite.

“[The fire chief] lives in the unincorporated areas and receives all of the fire service that he receives for fire doesn’t have to pay for it,” Steinhagen said. “Our citizens, our taxpayers do.”

The chief said if his department stops providing fire service, it will end mutual-aid agreements with neighboring cities and it will be up to them to decide whether to respond.

City leaders, meanwhile, are confident that those mutual-aid agreements will still be in effect and citizens will get help when they need it until council members can come up with a solution to the problem. That solution could ultimately involve the city starting its own department.

"Ultimately, the city of McLendon-Chisholm has a responsibility to ensure that fire protection is taken care of for all its citizens," Steinhagen said. 

City leaders also said Jones’ fire department is obligated to respond – and they hinted at legal action should the department stop coming to the aid of residents of the city.

© 2018 WFAA-TV


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