HOUSTON – Emergency Services District No. 7, the most heavily indebted ESD in Texas, according to state filing records, spent nearly twice what was budgeted in 2018, an audit revealed.
ESDs are taxing entities that fund emergency services in their areas. ESD No. 7 funds the Spring Fire Department and collected $22.6 million in 2018 from both property and sales tax levies.
ESD No. 7 carries about $33 million of long-term debt, which nearly doubles that of the second most indebted ESD in the state. The debt stems from financing both property acquisition and construction funding for new fire stations.
“In this decade, the district has built seven fire stations and this administration building we're sitting in,” said John Peeler, the attorney and spokesperson for ESD No. 7.
ESD No. 7 and the Spring Fire Department now serve about 150,000 people with nine fire stations.
The debt does not pose a problem, Peeler said.
"If you're asking if the districts can afford the mortgages they have in place, they absolutely can afford them,” the attorney said.
In addition to long-term debt, ESD No. 7 missed its proposed budget by a wide margin in 2018, according to a recently completed third-party audit.
Expenditures were budgeted for the year at $18.7 million but were actually $35.5 million. The largest miss appeared to be in the area of capital expenses.
The ESD's total fund balance lost about $6.5 million in 2018.
“Do you guys think you’re more on target this year?” reporter Joel Eisenbaum asked.
“I think so, yes,” Peeler said.
Spring FD response improves
The Spring Fire Department appears to have fixed a problem where dispatched fire crews would not arrive at emergency scenes, according to updated data reviewed by Channel 2. But the department’s funding entity, ESD No. 7, has incurred considerable debt, more than any other ESD in Texas, modernizing the department.
Systemwide, response times for the Spring Fire Department, according to its own data, are well below the nine-minute national standard for departments that consist of both paid full-time firefighters and volunteer firefighters. A previous Channel 2 Investigates story found that certain Spring Fire stations commonly never responded to emergency calls because volunteers were not available to respond.
The situation has steadily improved since our initial report because of new hires and increased full-time staffing. One station, No. 78, went from responding to 6% of calls to 95% over one year.
The improvement came as a result of hiring full-time firefighters to staff the station.
"We've continued to put our plan in motion. In fact, by the end of this month, every fire station is staffed 24/7," Spring Fire Chief Scott Seifert said.