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Council votes to annex F1 racetrack, but emergency services unclear

Friday, November 9, 2012 by Michael Kanin

The members of the Austin City Council on Thursday moved to annex 1,521 acres in southeastern Travis County, including the $400 million Circuit of the Americas racetrack. Though the vote was unanimous, and came with little discussion, the final status of Travis County Emergency Service District (ESD) 11 – the current fire and EMS service provider for the area – remained up in the air.


The action came as ESD 11 Chief Ken Bailey continued to press for cooperation between the City of Austin and his department when it comes to emergency response at the track. Bailey argues that an eventual full-purpose annexation of the facility – a move that would remove the circuit from the ESD’s jurisdiction, but leave the rest of the area – would place an unfair burden on the residents of area.


Nodding in the direction of Bailey’s concerns, Council members also passed a resolution that instructs City Manager Marc Ott to continue discussions with ESD 11 over emergency services in the region. As part of that document, Ott was also directed to study the impact of next weekend’s Formula 1 race on fire and emergency medical service response in ESD 11’s jurisdiction.


After the hearing, Bailey told In Fact Daily that his department had met with key city officials, including Ott, and every Council member. He called that a “positive step.”


“Everybody understands the issue that there is going to be an impact to this community,” Bailey continued. “Our concern is that our risk is inversely proportionate to our tax base now. We realize that the city has to grow; we realize all of the issues that are associated with that. That’s not the issue. We’ve still got to provide a service to our community, and they need to have the same level of service they had before the race.”


A traditional annexation would put the Austin Fire Department in charge of fire service in the annexed region. It will also put the $400 million Circuit of the Americas’ facility to the city’s tax base when the process is completed.


Bailey sought an arrangement that would have left ESD 11 operational within the bounds of the track. As reported in October, a full annexation would trim a major source of revenue – the sales tax income generated from COTA – but leave his department, as the probable first responder thanks to the automatic aid agreement between Austin Fire and the county’s ESDs. (See In Fact Daily, Oct. 19, 2012.)


The members of the Travis County Commissioners Court backed Bailey’s idea with a letter to Council members.


However, during a public hearing held to discuss the annexation of the track, Council members heard that Bailey’s suggestion could create legal problems. Council Member Mike Martinez wasn’t ready to give up. “There is a pathway to potentially share revenue, and we have that opportunity through the automatic aid agreement with ESD 11,” he said.


Indeed, Martinez brought forward the resolution that called for Ott to continue exploring options with ESD 11.


Since the hearing – which was held in mid-October – no arrangement has been reached. On Thursday afternoon, Bailey was a shade less diplomatic than he was in Council Chambers. Reached by phone, he told In Fact Daily he understood where city officials might be coming from. “In the defense of the city, the reality of it is: What do they do when they annex something?” he asked. “It’s a completely different approach to what we’re trying to do here.”


But Bailey said that comparisons of Circuit of the Americas events to University of Texas football games – used to illustrate the city’s ability to handle large-scale events from a public safety standpoint – were not wholly accurate. He pointed to the 284 miles of road and seven fire stations that he said are in the vicinity of Darrell K Royal Memorial Stadium.


Bailey noted that there is only 47 miles of road and one fire station close to the Circuit of the Americas’ facility. He also remained concerned that, without some agreement, the residents of the unincorporated regions surrounding the annexed track as well as track visitors would lack the service his department is obligated to provide.  “It’s incumbent upon us to plan for that,” Bailey added.


Martinez told In Fact Daily, “While I understand that there is a difference of legal opinion about whether or not we can keep ESD 11 in the COTA tract, our action today was an attempt to keep the conversations going. In the final analysis, I am certain that if all of the interested parties are committed to dialogue, we will be able to find a solution that is beneficial to everyone. My focus, and I believe that this should be everyone’s focus, is ensuring that we maintain or enhance the level of fire protection and medical first response that people in ESD 11 have come to expect regardless of whether or not there is an event at the COTA tract.”


Though he is happy with the opportunity granted his department by the resolution passed by Council Thursday, Bailey insisted that “there is zero political will to keep the ESD” serving the annexed track.


The annexation ordinance is set to take effect on Dec. 15.

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