UNCERTAIN — Harrison County recently approved a mutual aid agreement with Emergency Services District No. 3 to provide services for the unincorporated areas outside the city of Uncertain.
“I want the citizens of Caddo Lake area to know that by no way are they being neglected by Harrison County,” Pct. 1 County Commissioner William Hatfield, who represents the area, told the News Messenger. “This court that I am on is behind them 100 percent. There’s no need to worry about it. We’ve got it covered.”
The agreement approved between the county and ESD No. 3 calls for the ESD, out of Karnack, to cover the unincorporated areas around Uncertain that are not part of an ESD, for an annual payment of $8,000. The need for an assigned fire service for the area became a necessity due to contractual-related issues between the county and Uncertain Volunteer Fire Department.
“Harrison County has been paying Uncertain VFD $12,000 per year to respond to emergency service requests in that area,” Hatfield indicated. “Uncertain VFD agreed to provide financials and personnel details in order to receive the $12,000.”
Hatfield said because the VFD failed to furnish the requested information for the 2018-19 budget, they weren’t paid.
City of Uncertain Mayor Greg Jones begs to differ. He said when Uncertain Fire Chief Jeff Shaw signed the annual contract, as usual, the county never countersigned.
“From our standpoint … at the beginning of last year, October or September when the county was finalizing their budget, they typically would send out a contract and our fire chief would sign it. (It says) for the sum of $12,000, the county would contract for Uncertain VFD to provide to the areas outside of our city — the unincorporated areas that are not part of the coverage map for ESD #3 — and they said when our team was fighting fires in those areas they were acting as agents of the county, so all the liabilities were taken care of,” said Jones.
“So we signed that and they never countersigned, and never sent our check to us,” the mayor said. “So this kind of dragged on for way too many months and then I got involved and I they had all sorts of questions, which I didn’t think were relevant to what our contract was.”
Jones said all the county traditionally required was just a balance statement and income statement from Uncertain VFD.
“I provided all that to them and didn’t get a return call from Commissioner Hatfield,” said Jones.
Hatfield said he had set up a meeting through the county judge’s administrative assistant to meet with Mayor Jones and Uncertain’s fire chief, but the Uncertain officials cancelled a few days prior and instead provided documents, showing that the fire department was chartered by the city of Uncertain.
With this new information, the county determined that payment for coverage of the city was improper, and that the city of Uncertain should be the responsible party for covering all of the expenses of its own city fire department.
“After notifying Mayor Jones that the county would not make the $12,000 payment, Mayor Jones stated that the fire department would not respond to anything outside of Uncertain limit limits,” Hatfield said.
Mayor Jones said when it was discovered that the city’s fire department was not a nonprofit, but created through an ordinance that gave the city oversight for it, including oversight of the financials and the budget, the city immediately began “scrambling.”
“I had to take a look at insurance through TML,” Jones shared. “Our guys were not covered by worker’s comp because they were covered under the county.
“I explained to our fire chief we’re no longer to take primary calls outside the city of Uncertain,” the mayor said.
Making it official
Since ESD No. 3 had been stepping in to cover the unincorporated area anyway, county officials reached out to ESD No. 3 fire chief, John Pritchard, to make the ESD the official responding department for that area.
“ESD 3 has been responding to calls in the Uncertain area — both inside the city and outside,” said Hatfield. “It is not ESD3’s taxing area, but they’ve been responding and agreed to continue to respond.”
“They,” he said of Uncertain’s VFD, “were supposed to handle inside the city limits and then also up as far as back to Highway 43, which is called ‘No Man’s Land’ because it really didn’t touch Woodlawn (VFD’s area); it didn’t touch ESD #3’s (service area).”
Thus, “I want to give a lot of praise to Chief Pritchard,” Hatfield said of ESD No. 3’s fire chief, John Pritchard.
“They have volunteered to take care of that because they’re not going to let anyone get hurt and your house is not going to burn down,” said Hatfield.
Hatfield said Pritchard, ESD No. 3’s fire chief, presented a map the area the station will service, which includes the host of houses in Cypress Village.
“The city limits of Uncertain are incorporated, but Cypress Village has gotten over 100 houses in that area. It’s not part of the city of Uncertain, but ESD has been catching those calls for a long time,” said Hatfield.
The commissioner noted that ESD No. 3 intends to begin the procedures necessary to annex the unincorporated area and include them in the taxing district, at which time the county will discontinue the $8,000 annual payment.
“This will require a vote of the registered residents in that area,” Hatfield informed.
He reiterated that he doesn’t want Caddo Lake area residents to think the Harrison County Commissioners Court had bailed on them since the court didn’t provide funding for Uncertain VFD for the 2018-19 fiscal year.
“We have to follow the law,” Hatfield said. “It’s not something we chose to do, but if you’re not following the guidelines and listing your firemen and how they’re trained and going on calls” then you can’t receive funding, he said.
And now that they know that the department is actually operated under the city of Uncertain’s charter, Hatfield said the funding issue is no longer relevant anyway.
“Even if we could, we wouldn’t fund it because we cannot fund it,” he said. “That would be like us funding a fire department in (the cities of) Marshall or Hallsville.”
Mayor Jones said although they aren’t the primary contact anymore, the Uncertain VFD will assist when needed.
“In reality, if it’s in our little community my guys are going to respond if they get a call,” he said. “The city is not going to tell our fire department not to respond to a call outside the city limits. Really, it’s business as usual.”
He said, going forward, the city will be considering fundraising opportunities to support the VFD in the future.
“We probably respond to maybe one or two calls a month, maybe. The demand is not that great. So we’ve got enough money to go on for a few years,” he said. “We’ll just have to start doing a fundraiser like your typical VFDs.
“While the city doesn’t really have any extra funds to put towards the fire department, they’re going to kind of need to be self-sustainable,” he added.