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New emergency services district for Sunrise Beach area on Nov. 8 ballot

Sunrise Beach Volunteer Fire Department Chief Dan Gower

Sunrise Beach Volunteer Fire Department Chief Dan Gower voiced his approval for the creation of Emergency Services District No. 5 during a public hearing at the regular meeting of the Llano County Commissioners Court on Monday, July 11. Voters will decide on ESD No. 5 on Nov. 8. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

The Llano County Commissioners Court approved a motion to put the creation of Emergency Services District No. 5 on the Nov. 8 midterm election ballot. Commissioners made the decision at their regular meeting Monday, July 11, after a public hearing on the matter. 

The proposed ESD No. 5 would be a publicly funded entity with the sole purpose of providing fire protection services to residents in voting Precinct 108, which includes Sunrise Beach Village, Lakewood Forest 1, and Comanche Rancherias.

The new district would implement a tax capped at a maximum of 0.10 cents per $100 of property evaluation for voting precinct residents. If the ESD is formed, a board of directors will oversee the funds, which can only be used for fire protection services. The money would cover operation costs, the hiring of full-time or part-time professional firefighters, and the purchase of firefighting equipment.

The Commissioners Court’s decision came after more than 100 signatures were collected from residents within the proposed district in favor of the ESD. 

“(Creating ESD No. 5 is) a strategic move to look to the future to ensure that fire protection services are there and ready,” said Chief Dan Gower of the Sunrise Beach Volunteer Fire Department. 

The combination of an aging group of volunteer firefighters, the high cost of capital expenses, and the time put into fundraising efforts has made it unsustainable for the Sunrise Beach department to provide fire protection services, Gower said.

“What I fear is that people in the volunteer department will continue to try and do the job beyond the point when they are really able to do it,” said Don Black, president of the VFD’s board. 

According to Black, the average age of a Sunrise Beach volunteer firefighter is 66 and rising. Only 14 of the 40 volunteers in the department are considered qualified to engage in an emergency situation. 

Sunrise Beach lies within the precinct of Commissioner Peter Jones, who commended the volunteer fire department.

“The VFD in Sunrise Beach Village is one of the best in the state,” he said. “But the volunteers are getting older, and to be able to respond the way they could or should may become difficult.”

According to Gower, the Sunrise Beach VFD pulled in $180,000 in 2021 through fundraising efforts and donations. Roughly 30 percent of households in the area contribute a majority of the donations. The average annual operations cost for the volunteer department is $70,000 to $80,000; however, Gower explained, this is solely for operations and does not include capital expenses such as equipment purchases. 

Gower estimates that a new fire engine alone would cost between $400,000 and $500,000 and outfitting a single firefighter with standard gear would be $4,000 to $5,000.

If approved by voters, expected revenues from an ESD No. 5 tax would come out to roughly $450,000 to $550,000, according to estimates on total property evaluation within the boundaries of the proposed district.

The Sunrise Beach department responds to an average of three to four structural fires and eight to 12 wildfires each year. 

As it stands, fire protection services for Sunrise Beach Village and the surrounding communities are almost totally dependent on volunteerism, fundraising, and donations. 

“Once people fully understand all the issues and the implications and the limitations and the benefits, it makes sense,” Commissioner Jones said.

dakota@thepicayune.com