Public Safety, Liberty & Responsibility
by Susan Fletcher on February 10, 2016 at 10:11 AM
When the 84th Legislature passed HB 1150, and it was sent to the Governor's desk to sign, few were aware of the debate that would play out in Commissioners Courts across Texas. Fireworks sales are currently allowed twice during the calendar year, during Independence Day and during the New Year's holiday. Now, many of Texas' 254 counties are considering whether or not to allow fireworks sales during three additional periods, including Texas Independence Day, San Jacinto Day and Memorial Day. It's also important to recognize that regardless of how the Commissioners Court voted, this measure addressed the vendors' ability to sell fireworks, and was not restricting a citizens' rights to purchase them, just the frequency in which they were for sale.
The Collin County Commissioners Court took up this issue on Monday, February 8, and after much discussion, the measure passed in a 3-2 split vote. While I am very conscious of personal property rights and individual liberty, I am also very concerned about the added operational costs which are passed on to the taxpayers, as well as the increased risk for public safety, just so we could allow local vendors in a particular industry additional days to sell their products. I would feel very differently if the debate had been over a constitutionally protected liberty such as free speech or the right to bear arms. However, we are talking about a relatively small group of vendors, whose additional sales periods will now require every fire department throughout the county to increase staffing during these new selling periods. I am left asking myself why we are putting the taxpayers on the hook, both for the staffing shortfalls as well as the increased risk to their homes and their properties, not to mention the risk of increased homeowners' insurance rates.
After hearing from several of our Collin County Fire Chiefs and Mayors, it became clear that this was much more than merely a public safety vs. liberty issue. It also places a significant burden on local fire departments and municipalities, as well as the Collin County Sheriff's Office. For example, just this past July 4th holiday, in the City of Wylie alone, public safety personnel answered 106 fireworks related calls in a 24 hour period. These calls are outside the "routine" calls that must also be answered. Not only the threat of grass fires is increased, but the threat of structure fires is also increased significantly, as well. This new legislation does not give the county the ability to recover any of its costs in dealing with these additional calls. Municipalities who are under contract with Collin County to provide fire / emergency response in the unincorporated areas, are left with no other option than to increase their staffing - at taxpayers' expense.
From my perspective, the taxing entity isn't the the real issue here, but rather, it's adding to the individual taxpayers' burden. While tax rates may or may not increase, taxpayer revenues will definitely be required to to fulfilling this obligation, leaving less for other services. The county could easily absolve itself of "responsibility" for creating this added burden on municipalities, but an increased burden on taxpayers is what gives me pause, regardless of which taxing authority levies the tax.
Since the measure was approved by the court, the county will begin collecting data related to this issue. While I can't label this as a true unfunded mandate, it is definitely an unfunded risk, and our public safety professionals will be required to find the funding within their current budgets to cover the additional staffing needs during these periods. I expect it to take a few years before there is truly measurable data to consider, but for now, Collin County cities and the Sheriff's Office should prepare for increased calls during these times. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the issue as well.