Wreck Em' Fest

Volunteer firefighter and paramedic Steve Duich raises his hands in disappointment Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, after he was eliminated from the men's heat of the demolition derby, in Spicewood. The Spicewood Volunteer Fire Department holds an annual Demolition Derby as it's primary yearly fundraiser to purchase new emergency vehicles and clothe firefighters. In a time of rising costs, the department is planning to ask voters to approve a tax to increase its funding.

Austin American-Statesman/Ralph Barrera

SPICEWOOD — Car No. 1, “Come and Take It,” revved its engine, plowing over the moist dirt. Seven smashed cars growled as loud as a rock concert, emitting a thick tang of gasoline and engine fumes. Then a 15-foot high fire erupted almost spontaneously out of the black sedan’s hood.

The Spicewood Volunteer Fire Department had been waiting just outside the demolition derby field, ready to pounce on dangerous situations like this. After all, they were the ones hosting the event.

The battle scars and shells of wrecked cars from the 21st annual Destruction Derby earlier this month are a reminder that volunteer fire departments don’t pay for themselves.

The derby, a popular tradition among local daredevils who build and wreck the glorious clunkers, is also the Spicewood Volunteer Fire Department’s largest fundraiser, netting about $20,000 a year toward its $150,000 budget.

Grants from Burnet County and other agencies, as well as smaller fundraisers like a barbecue and firearm raffle, help cover the rest, the Austin American-Statesman reported.

Volunteer fire departments, part of the proud tradition of self-reliance in small towns across the state, typically count on community fundraisers to pay for their lifesaving gear and training.

But more and more, that’s not enough. A growing number of volunteer fire departments have been holding elections to create taxing districts for a larger, more consistent source of money.

Taxing district

In Burnet County, for instance, 10 of the 13 fire departments are all-volunteer. Seven of them created voter-approved taxing districts within the past five years.

Spicewood may join them: It will ask voters in November to approve an Emergency Services District to help fund the 32-person department, which would remain all-volunteer.

“Communities are voting (taxing districts) in and recognizing that you can’t provide valuable fire protection and emergency medical services with barbecues and bake sales — or demolition derbies,” said Cliff Avery, the executive director of the Texas State Association of Fire and Emergency Districts, which lobbies the state on behalf of such departments.

The state’s roughly 310 Emergency Services Districts have all been created since the law allowing them was passed in 1987, but a growing number were created in recent years. In almost every general election there are several ballots items to create such a district somewhere in the state, Avery said, and volunteer departments are trending in that direction.

Serves 5,000 residents

The Spicewood Volunteer Fire Department serves about 5,000 residents in a 50-square-mile area.

If voters approve, the taxing district could charge up to 10 cents per $100 of assessed value, though officials plan to charge about half that amount.

That would make for a $90 to $180 fire tax bill on a $180,000 Spicewood home.Those dollars would add up to about $125,000 a year for the fire department, mostly to maintain current equipment and response levels.

A variety of factors brought Spicewood to this point, said EMS director Patsy Lester, 72, who has been a volunteer for the department since it was founded in 1976.

The prolonged drought hurt the wallets of many residents whose incomes depend on tourism at nearby Lake Travis, leading to a drop in donations, she said.

The younger generation works more and has less time to help with fundraisers. And the newer vehicles have more sophisticated technology, which means firefighters can’t do routine maintenance or repairs on their own.

Still, there remains a question of whether collecting property taxes to fund a service that has long been provided by giving hands takes away any of the community feel.

“I don’t think it’ll change any. People around here in Spicewood are very community-oriented people,” Lester said.

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