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Elizabeth Pagano is the editor of the Austin Monitor.
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Commissioners hear first round of fight over emergency services district
Wednesday, February 13, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano
Though it will return in March, the discussion over a new Emergency Services District in northeast Travis County started on a heated note at the Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday.
The proposed district – Travis County Emergency Services District Number 2a – will overlap Travis County ESD 2, also known as the Pflugerville Fire Department.
Though emergency service professionals say the extra money and staff is needed in the area, Pflugerville officials disagree. The overlay proposal comes not from them, but from individual petitioners, who were represented by attorney Kelli Carlton at Commissioners Court. Officials from the city of Pflugerville were also on hand to state their case.
George Hyde, who is the Pflugerville city attorney, spoke on behalf of the city. He said that they were “seriously concerned” that people who voted in the 10-cent tax under ESD 2 for fire and first responder services would no longer be getting what they voted for.
“That is a significant issue for my Council. They spent about 14 hours of public meetings dealing with this issue by itself,” said Hyde. “This has been the longest single issue that I have dealt with in the City Council meetings in my career. That’s how important it is to the city.”
“An overlay district is another layer of local government between the county and the city,” said Hyde. “It’s proposed in this petition to be the exact same boundaries as ESD 2. If you look at it like a layer cake, you have the city government, and you have ESD 2, and then at the same level you are going to put another local entity – ESD 2a – on top. What that overlay provides, under the statute, is an opportunity to separate out some of the services currently provided by ESD 2 and give that to another governmental entity to provide with another up to 10 cent ad valorem tax… and the opportunity to acquire certain sales tax in that district’s boundaries.”
Ron Moellenberg, fire chief for Travis County ESD 2 said the new district was necessary to meet the increased demand for services in the area. “Call volumes have gone up, revenues have begun to decline,” said Lundberg, who explained the state legislature had clarified that overlapping districts were allowed, as long as the services were clearly defined.
“They coexist as one, and operate efficiently as one district,” said Moellenberg.
Commissioner Ron Davis noted that the existing district (ESD2) is already at the 10-cent ad valorem maximum, and the new district would add a new tax on top of that. “The end result of that is the property tax paid within that area would actually be doubled, as far as the tax is resolved currently for this particular service,” said Davis.
When asked, Hyde told the commissioners that there had been “quite a bit” of public outcry over the proposal.
Attorney Carlton disagreed, saying, “Really what happened here was the Pflugerville City Council decided for their people instead of letting the people vote up or down on 2a… City Council has taken the right to vote on 2a away from the residents of Pflugerville. They don’t have a voice now.”
Hyde explained that the Pflugerville City Council had spent almost a decade reducing its own ad valorem tax by a half cent each year, for a total of four cents.
“In one action, the commissioners can keep that four-cent savings for those members of the public by not allowing this additional tax increase. Ten cents more than doubles the work that City Council and staff (have done),” said Hyde.
Carlton said that this wasn’t necessarily the case. “There is an assumption here that we would immediately go to the maximum of 20 cents… I don’t want you to think that is what is actually going to happen. I don’t believe that is what is going to happen.”
Though Hyde said that might be true, he cautioned that the rate was like “Hotel California,” saying that once the ten cent cap was achieved, there would be no going back.
Pflugerville Mayor Jeff Coleman agreed with this assessment. He said that he understood that they wanted to increase staff – but if they went down this road, they “were going to be in the exact same situation in 2016.”
“We know if 2a starts, they are going to get ten cents, and that ten cents is going to last forever,” said Coleman.
Hyde highlighted several concerns from the city council He asked that the signatures on the petition be validated and questioned whether the terms of the petition were too broad.
Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt highlighted the fractured nature of services across the county, saying, “One benefit of having such a fractured system is that all eyes are looking to this ESD 2 circumstance to see if a solution comes out of it – to see if we can then export and scale across the county for similar circumstances that are worse, or better. ESD 2 is one of our better ESDs,” said Eckhardt.
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