Travis County Commissioners Court rejects petition to create new EMS taxing district

Travis County Emergency Services District No. 2—also known as the Pflugerville Fire Department—will not be allowed to ask voters for additional funding.

Travis County Commissioners Court on March 1 voted against allowing an election that would have given voters in unincorporated northeast Travis County the option to create a new taxing district to fund emergency responders. The Pflugerville Professional Firefighters Association submitted a petition in January requesting the county call an election to allow the creation of an overlay district that would have provided separate tax funding for firefighting and emergency responder services.

County Judge Samuel Biscoe said the Commissioners Court's decision not to allow the vote is mandated by state statutes concerning elections for new funding districts.

"Our biggest problem is that we didn't get any evidence showing what the impact would be if one or more of the [Austin, Pflugerville, Round Rock, Hutto or Taylor extraterritorial jurisdictions] were not to approve the creation of the district," Biscoe said.

Essentially, Biscoe said, the state statute requires the county to consider the feasibility of the new district--which could have added up to 10 cents of new property taxes per $100 of valuation for property owners--if any of the areas involved in the election were to vote against its creation.

"To be honest, we didn't ask for the evidence because we didn't know we had to, and nobody else presented it to us prior to today," Biscoe said. "This is a part of the law that is apparently new, but it is there."

The Court's decision brought to an end a contentious and complicated funding debate involving ESD No. 2, the City of Pflugerville, the surrounding extraterritorial jurisdictions, or ETJs, and Travis County. Representatives of the fire department claimed its staff was being overextended while trying to adequately serve a 100-square-mile district with approximately 100,000 residents. Because state law caps tax funding for ESDs at 10 cents per $100 of property valuation, department representatives said the best solution to draw the funding needed to provide adequate services was by creating the ESD No. 2A overlay district. The proposed overlay district could have potentially doubled the fire department's funding for fire and first-responder services.

"This is not a money grab for us. We were looking at ways to enhance our service. [The overlay district] was really the only viable option," PPFA President Trevor Stokes said. "The firefighters here are really having a hard time at night sleeping knowing they could be providing better services."

Representatives of the PPFA's petition were required to request approval for the election from all local governing bodies prior to going before the Commissioners Court. The city councils of Austin, Hutto, Pflugerville, Round Rock and Taylor all consented to allowing the residents of their respective ETJs to participate in the election.

Pflugerville City Council, however, voted unanimously Feb. 5 not to allow city residents to participate in the proposed election. The council members questioned the need for additional funding and whether the tax burden it would impose on residents would be worth the proposed additional services.

"We didn't make a decision not to do this [election] based on a whim," Pflugerville Mayor Pro tem Victor Gonzalez said. "We made it based on our obligation to be good stewards. It is a matter of good stewardship and taxation and representation."

With Pflugerville city residents excluded from the proposed election, the issue became even more convoluted. If the proposed district were to be approved by voters, the ramifications could have meant Pflugerville residents would no longer have emergency medical services (EMS) within the city limits—only fire services would be provided.

Had the overlay district been approved by voters, there was speculation from Pflugerville officials that the issue would have landed in court. Pflugerville's city leaders believed ESD No. 2 did not have the right to take away the EMS services its voters had been granted when they originally approved funding for the district in the 1980s.

The issue, however, is now moot, as the Commissioners Court has stated it can not call for an election given the existing state statutes.

"The statute, frankly, is poorly written," said Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, whose precinct includes much of the area covered by ESD No. 2. "It is possible under this interpretation [of the statute] that no urban area would ever be able to create an overlay district."