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Bills to restructure emergency districts cause concern in Travis County

Friday, March 18, 2011 by Michael Kanin

There is a raft of bills pending in the Texas Legislature that would alter multiple characteristics of the state’s numerous Emergency Service Districts. One measure, Senate Bill 917, has become controversial among some members of the Travis County emergency services community.


The measure, proposed by Sen. Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio), would make it easier for the boundaries of those jurisdictions to blur. Though many are in favor of portions of the bill that would allow mergers of districts, the reconfigurations allowed by the measure could result in a single district board controlling multiple service areas – a fact that some local officials argue could cause problems.


However, thinly stretched providers in the far-flung regions of some counties suggest that the measure could help them cut the time it takes to get to an incident. “Response times for our engines – even for our ambulances out here – aren’t very good,” said Lake Travis Fire and Rescue Chief Jim Linardos.


ESDs are the first response and fire service providers for the unincorporated portions of Texas. They are political entities, complete with taxing authorities, which are managed by a locally derived group called the board of commissioners. In Travis County, they contract with the Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Service to provide ambulance care. To fund their operations, these organizations are afforded a 10 cent per $100 of valuation property tax


Because district budgets are dependent on property tax revenue, jurisdictions with lower valuations can afford only a lower degree of service. Currently, more well-off emergency service regions pick up some of that slack.


Wentworth’s proposal would allow easier consolidation for emergency service districts – a move that would create one jurisdiction that can afford to serve its residents. This aspect of the legislation has met with wide approval.


However, local officials are concerned that Wentworth’s bill would also allow a district board to create another emergency service region on top of its existing boundaries. Though overlay emergency service districts do exist in Texas, they currently have to report to separate boards.


The change would allow the single board to collect up to 10 cents on every $100 of valuation for two districts, which would result in a de facto doubling of its tax revenue. Austin-Travis County EMS Employee Association head Steve Stewart worries that “with this extra funding, they could hire their own medical director.”


Full-on ambulance service for the districts could follow.


This, Stewart argues, would be a problem. “Right now,” he said, “we send the closest ambulance. (With this bill) we’d have multiple jurisdictional issues … We have 14 emergency service districts in Travis County right now. This would allow us to have 14 different providers … It would be a mess.”


In so doing, he says, the measure would decentralize the standards for patient care in the county. “We have a much more synergistic system (right now) than what you would have (there),” Stewart said.


He also noted that the legislation would make the response to a major emergency more difficult to organize. “It’s bad for the citizens of Travis County,” he said.


Austin-Travis County EMS System Medical Director Paul Hinchey agrees. “This bill would be used to promote fragmentation in systems,” he said.


Hinchey noted that, as such, the proposed changes could cause a loss of system “interoperability.” “We know from the post-911 era … that there is a real benefit in standardization,” he said.


Lake Travis is Travis County’s Emergency Service District 6. In the first quarter of fiscal year 2011, it took their units about nine and a half minutes to respond to the most severe emergencies. It took Travis County’s ambulance units just over 18 minutes to arrive at those scenes.


Volente, which is in the county’s Emergency Service District 14, experienced the most disparate variance in those figures. It took its units slightly more than 10 minutes to respond to the most extreme emergencies.


“I’m trying to get more money to provide better service for our community,” Linardos says.


He noted that, should the law pass, any change to the current system would have to be vetted publicly, both by the Travis County Commissioners Court and via referendum. He also said that most of what is in the bill exists in some form in current law. “It’s a reformation bill,” he said. “It allows us to function more efficiently.”


“I think we can do better out here,” he continued. “I know our community wants better response times when they pick up the phone.”

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