Pflugerville brainstorms EMS funding options as service demands spike
Pflugerville City Council voted to delay further debate until it is able to meet with the ESD No. 2 board, Travis County commissioners, Austin-Travis County EMS Services and other invested parties to outline all possible means of providing EMS services to city and extraterritorial jurisdiction, or ETJ, residents in Pflugerville. (Community Impact staff)
Council voted to delay additional discussions about ESD No. 2, which oversees the Pflugerville Fire Department, until it is able to meet with the ESD No. 2 board and the Travis County Commissioners Court. The meeting will outline the possible means of providing EMS services to city and extraterritorial jurisdiction, or ETJ, residents in Pflugerville.
The deadline for including items on the May ballot is Feb. 12, and the city is set to make a decision by Feb. 8. In addition to the city of Pflugerville's consideration, Travis County Commissioners Court is expected to review ESD No. 2's district overlay proposal at its Feb. 9 meeting.
Calls for action
The Pflugerville Professional Firefighters Association initiated a petition for the formation of Travis County ESD No. 17—a district overlay on top of ESD No. 2—in September. If established, ESD No. 17 would provide funding for emergency medical and ambulance services in northeast Travis County, including Pflugerville.
ESD No. 2 reported dwindling financial projections that, per the entity's calculations, would lead to a depletion in the department's reserves by fiscal year 2023-24.
"Projections show that ESD [No.] 2 will not have enough resources to continue providing enhanced emergency medical services, including advanced life support and ambulance transport, at its current levels," according to a Sept. 29 ESD No. 2 news release.
The discussion held by Pflugerville City Council on Jan. 12 was not to formally establish the district overlay but rather to consider the proposal's inclusion on the May ballot. Several residents and firefighters have spoken out in favor of the petition on and before Jan. 12 to urge council to leave the decision up to the voters.
Pflugerville firefighter Chris Wolff said November's approved bond election highlighted that citizens will make decisions in the best interest of the city if given the opportunity. Pflugerville's population is growing too quickly to delay EMS service enhancements, Wolff said.
Citizens want and deserve to vote on maintaining the department's current level of service while adapting to widespread growth within the community, said Joshua Stubblefield, president of the Pflugerville Professional Firefighters Association.
"If you don’t consent for the city and for the ETJ, you’re speaking for those citizens that cannot vote you in or out of office, and you’re taking full responsibility for that, and you’re going to have to provide [advanced life support] transport in both of those areas when ESD [No.] 17 is created," Stubblefield said.
In addressing Stubblefield's comment on assuming responsibility for EMS services, Council Member Rudy Metayer said the ESD would be the one ceasing to provide the services and that it would not be the city making that decision on ESD No. 2's behalf.
Metayer said there is no requirement for the city to provide services to the ETJ in general and added that the city could contract out services for the ETJ or give municipal utility districts the opportunity to construct a plan for their own fire and EMS services.
Concerns over tax implications
Some citizens urged council to consider alternative funding resources and pointed to potentially greater department financial stability than was being presented.
Residents Melody Ryan and Anthony Nguyen spoke to oppose the creation of ESD No. 17. Ryan referred to the addition of the overlay as an opportunity "to double our taxes" and said ESD commissioners are not elected by voters and cannot be held accountable by the same citizens they tax.
Citing audited financial documents from ESD No. 2, Ryan said ESD No. 2's annual sales tax revenues have increased by $5.1 million, or 67%, between 2017 and the present. Ryan said documents showed a 34% population growth and a call volume increase of 50% since the ESD's last district overlay attempt in 2013.
Nguyen said he is typically in favor of allowing voters to decide on similar government initiatives; however, he said he believes elected leaders should not punt further decisions down the road and argued against the necessity for an overlay.
"ESD [No.] 2 has a habit of underestimating revenues and overestimating expenses," Nguyen said.
Exploring alternative solutions
City Manager Sereniah Breland said the city has issued a request for qualifications, or RFQ, to determine what options the city has regarding the future of emergency medical and ambulance services. Some possibilities included: tiered services for basic life support and advanced life support services; utilizing paramedic response units to respond to scenes more quickly; running a city fire and EMS department; and contracting with ESD No. 2 for EMS services, among other options.
Breland said sales tax revenue has continued to grow for Pflugerville during the pandemic, increasing well beyond previous city expectations. Citing ESD No. 2 documents, she said district fund balances showed a $16.3 million balance at the end of FY 2019-20 and a 50% increase in service calls from 2014 to 2021.
Given the nature of the city's growing populations and increasing number of taxpayers, Breland said, the city expects that revenue to increase accordingly.
Based on financial figures Breland provided and on alternative plans available for consideration, Council Member Mike Heath said there is no imminent need for a discussion at this time.
"This is not prudent, and there’s nothing that drives this decision right at this moment other than personal desires of a few people," Heath said. "This is not the one to conduct the business of the people."
Mayor Pro Tem Omar Peña strongly denounced the manner in which public conversations surrounding the ESD No. 17 proposal have been held and added that he was specifically upset at signage placed around the city stating ambulance services will be canceled at the end of 2021 if no action is taken by council.
"That is, quite frankly, an insult, and [there] is hardly any effort on their part other than a very sincere appreciation for their position of influence and their position to be able to collectively insert fear, uncertainty and doubt into the population," Peña said.