Agenda Item Characterized as “Witch Hunt”
By Will Johnson
HOUSTON COUNTY – An otherwise normal Houston County Commissioners Court meeting – held on Tuesday, Aug. 27 – took an ugly turn when Houston County Emergency Services District (ESD) #2 President George Crowson, Jr. was asked to explain the reason for the cancellation of a contract with the City of Crockett’s Volunteer Fire Department.
Last week, representatives from the ESD and city of Crockett met to discuss contractual matters. However, when Crockett representatives proposed a monetary figure, the ESD representatives abruptly ended the meeting and stated there would be no new contract after the current one expires at the end of September.
After all other agenda item had been disposed of, Crowson was asked to come forward and explain what happened in the meeting.
“I do have an opening statement and then I would be happy to take your questions. You may not like what I have to say, but the truth does need to come out,” he began.
“Today is a shameful day. With a little leadership from any member of this court, this could have been resolved. This is not the time or the place for the discussion about what went on in the ESD #2 meeting. Instead, a group of the finest citizens in this county have had their names dragged through the mud today. It shouldn’t happen,” he said.
Crowson further indicated the court did not have the decency, respect or the common courtesy to seek out the ESD board members to find out what had occurred.
“Instead, you have chosen to judge us through unknowing eyes. We do not appreciate that courtesy. After 12 years of service, to this day, you have no idea about the challenges the ESD faces. To my knowledge, not one person on this court has ever attended an ESD meeting. Yet, you judge us. We do not appreciate that respect,” Crowson said.
He said he felt the commissioners had tarnished the image of ESD by placing item 20 on the agenda which stated the court would discuss and consider taking action to request the resignations of ESD #2 board members George Crowson, Jr. Peggy Patrick and Bobby Hutcherson.
Taking a page from the Donald Trump playbook, Crowson added, “This is a witch hunt today, but I have news for you. There are no witches. This court can operate in any way it choses, but the ESD board will not become political puppets. ESDs were not designed to be political puppets of the court and we do not have to call and ask your permission to see how we should vote.”
Before he concluded, Crowson said, “Not one time since the inception of ESD #2 in 2007and 2008 has a single member of this court offered a thank you for your service. It is a shameful and sad day for this court and the citizens of ESD #2.”
Crowson went on to say the city of Crockett had asked for an opportunity to be placed on the ESDs agenda and when they were recognized, the city representatives “… very plainly and simply asked for more than we could afford. They asked for over two-thirds of our budget. In order to accomplish that, our other nine departments would be totally decimated. It was not a request. It was not a negotiation. It was a demand. We could not meet that demand. We did not cancel that contract, as your agenda says. We simply voted to allow it to expire.”
At the end of his statement, County Judge Jim Lovell sought clarification to several of Crowson’s talking points. The judge asked Crowson what was the difference between cancelling and letting the contract expire to which Crowson replied if they had cancelled it, the contract would have ended when the ESD meeting did.
The current contract calls for a $50,000 subsidy to be paid to the Crockett Fire Department to cover approximately 220 square miles of the county outside the city limits. The number was derived from the fire department answering approximately 30% of the calls in the county when the department’s 2008 budget (shortly before the ESD was formed) was $165,000. Thirty percent of $165,000 is approximately $50,000.
Now, with a budget of roughly $500,000, 30% of the fire department’s budget is $150,000. Crockett had requested approximately $143,000 from the ESD.
“Was there any discussion or negotiation to try and come to an agreement other than to let it expire?” Lovell asked.
“This occurred in executive session so let me be very careful on what I expound upon,” Crowson said. “The two city council members who were in the meeting … no. They did not attempt to negotiate. The word was used if you don’t do this, it will be a burden lifted off the city of Crockett. The other board members were there and they can verify it. We were given a demand and we couldn’t meet it.”
Precinct 2 Commissioner Willie Kitchen questioned Crowson about what would happen now to which Crowson remarked the ESD would re-allocate funds away from Crockett and re-claim equipment housed at the Crockett Fire Department.
“There are also differences between the ESD and the Kennard Fire Department to the point it might be considered unwise budgeting. We’ve gone from not being able to negotiate with Kennard to not being able to negotiate with Crockett which leads me to ask, what’s next? Where are we headed?” Kitchen further queried.
“In your reference to Kennard, you’re lumping that in to our inability to manage. That’s unfair. I know fair is not a big thing. The Kennard situation is totally different from this situation. It has nothing to do with this situation. We did the right thing for the citizens who pay the ESD tax,” Crowson said.
Staying on the Kennard theme, the judge asked Crowson if he thought “… it was in the best interest of the taxpayers to build a new fire station (in Ratcliff) and equip it – buy the land first – three miles or less from a fire station (in Kennard) that is already in existence in the least populated part of the county?”
“Absolutely,” Crowson replied.
“That’s where we disagree,” Lovell said. “I don’t think …”
“You’re arguing from a position – no disrespect – where you don’t know the facts,” Crowson interrupted.
“You’re already disrespecting us,” Lovell shot back.
Several more minutes of discussion pertaining to the Kennard situation occurred before Kitchen suggested the possibility of replacing the current individuals responsible for conducting the contract negotiations.
As the meeting continued, ESD Board Member William Money addressed the board and indicated he abstained from the vote to terminate the contract.
“I abstained my vote. I didn’t say yes or no either way. Not necessarily because I wasn’t backing the board. I abstained my vote because I thought we were rushing the vote. I agree with George and I agree with the board – we don’t have the money to pay Crockett. We have got to get some negotiations going,” he said.
“From my standpoint,” he continued, “We have to resolve this. Crockett has to run and the board needs to find some way to get it done. But, it’s still the issue of money.”
Lovell asked, “How dead set are y’all in letting this contract expire?”
Board Member Peggy Patrick replied, “You can’t pay if you don’t have it. They either need to lower their demand – that’s all there is to it. There are no funds. Look – you have our profit and loss statement.”
Precinct One Commissioner Gary Lovell added, “Like Commissioner Kitchen mentioned a while ago, y’all get a couple of people and get down and do some serious negotiation. We know you don’t have the money. Crockett knows that. Sit down and talk about what you can do for them. Let’s rescind this and try and resolve this the best you can.”
Following several more minutes of discussion, Crockett Fire Chief Jason Frizzell gave a rebuttal to Crowson’s arguments.
“I’m not sure what I can say about what happened in executive session. I’m not familiar with those laws. I know we went into executive session and I did provide a sheet with a $143,000 request. That was to start somewhere. Never once did we draw the line and say this is what we want,” Frizzell said.
He added he had gone to the tax assessor collector (Danette Millican) to try and come up with a number to present to the ESD.
In a letter presented to the commissioners, Frizzell stated, “The city has operated its city-owned rescue truck, a 1993 Chevy 1 ton which was purchased in 2006. This truck’s use was to carry firefighters and rescue equipment into the county on wrecks and rescues.”
The letter further stated Crockett had asked for assistance from the ESD in replacing the truck in 2017 because of the wear and tear and again in 2018. Both times the city was denied.
“I could not justify asking the City of Crockett to replace the rescue truck as 95% of the calls that it responds to are in the county,” Frizzell stated in the letter.
As a result, Frizzell said he asked to be placed on the ESD’s Aug. 22 agenda “… to discuss revisiting the contract (which hadn’t been updated since 2009/2010) to clarify some questions and decide how we can address our need for a vehicle so we can continue providing the services we have for so many years.”
Frizzell said he knew the $143,000 he requested was high but explained a starting point was needed.
“Never once did we draw a line. Never happened. I live out in the county and pay ESD #2 taxes. I’m not trying to do anything wrong. I went to them to try and figure out what was best for both sides,” he added.
Lovell said he heard what he wanted to hear as far as having an ultimatum issued.
Kitchen then asked the fire chief if he believed the waters had been so muddied between the two entities, that new faces should be added to the negotiations.
“Yes sir, I really do. I believe other people should come on board and try figure this out. I just think there will be grudges held. There might not be, but that’s just my personal opinion. We need to sit down and talk about this – civilly – and work it out for the betterment of the taxpayers, both county and city,” he said.
“Are you saying it became un-civil?” Kitchen asked.
“It didn’t get un-civil,” Frizzell explained, “but some stuff was said that shouldn’t have been said by both parties. I think it has come to the point where we need a mediator to try and figure this out.”
The judge asked if there were any board members on the ESD who would not be able to negotiate with Crockett. No one said they were against it.
As a result, the next agenda item concerning the resignations of ESD #2 board members George Crowson, Jr. Peggy Patrick and Bobby Hutcherson was tabled for further consideration.
Will Johnson may be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.