Voters will decide on funding for district service upgrades and improvements for Hutto Fire Rescue, also known as Williamson County ESD No. 3, in May.
If voters approve the referendum, it will impose a 2 percent sales tax on items purchased outside the city limits, but within the ESD service area. This is in addition to the existing tax of $0.10 per $100 of assessed property value paid by all residents in ESD No. 3.
ESD No. 3 board President Bill Brown said the district needs about $1.9 million to meet their needs.
“We need an additional station, facilities, personnel, apparatus and other equipment,” he said.
Hutto Fire Chief Scott Kerwood said the department has needed another fire station for several years, and the department’s main goal is to build a fire station south of the railroad tracks along Hwy. 79, staffed with at least one truck and 12 firefighters for 24/7 coverage.
“We currently have one station to serve 63 square miles in a population of approximately 43,000 people,” Kerwood said. “An initial study conducted in 2012 revealed Hutto’s fire service district was in need of three additional fire stations, and the city’s population has grown significantly since then.”
In Texas, the state has placed a cap on sales tax at 8.25 percent, and 6.25 percent of that amount goes to the State of Texas. The remaining 2 percent is reserved for use by local governments.
The city of Hutto already collects the maximum 8.25 percent sales tax, and it uses the 2 percent for general revenue, including contributions to the emergency services district. Since residents inside the city already pay the maximum allowable rate, they are not allowed to vote on the sales tax referendum appearing on the May 7 ballot. Only residents living outside the city limits of Hutto will be allowed to vote on the issue. Outside the city limits the remaining 2 percent tax is currently not being collected.
Kerwood said the district opted for a sales tax increase instead of a bond election because the ESD does not have the revenue to pay back a bond.
“We’re capped at that $0.10 [per $100 valuation property tax], and to have a bond election, to sell bonds, you have to have a way of paying them back,” Kerwood said. “We don’t have a way of paying them because there’s no breathing room in our taxes.”
Jamie Church, owner of Grandpa Bo’s Bargains in Hutto’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, said the tax increase would improve public safety.
“I really don’t think the 2 percent is going to be a big impact [on business],” Church said. “It would be a different story if it wasn’t for something lifesaving, but it is crucial that we have a fire station on [the south] side of the tracks.”
On Jan. 12, Hutto City Council members voted in favor of providing additional funds in exchange for asking ESD board members to postpone the sales tax referendum. The council’s contingent offer would have given Hutto Fire Rescue an extra $8,333 per month for one year, in addition to the funding the city currently provides to support annual emergency service operations.
Brown said the city’s offer did not meet the station’s needs, so the ESD board voted to move ahead with the ballot initiative.
Hutto Mayor Debbie Holland said she would like for the ESD to consider other funding options instead of the proposed sales tax increase.
“The city is not opposing an additional fire station,” Holland said. “I just think there hasn’t been a real open and honest conversation about possibilities [and] revenue streams.”