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Perry fails to veto EMS district bill despite late plea by Leffingwell

Monday, June 17, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell was concerned enough about a piece of Texas state legislation that he penned a letter to Gov. Rick Perry asking him to veto it. In so doing, he created an odd political situation, one where the Mayor was trying to stop a bill that was sponsored and supported by nearly the entire Austin delegation – the exception being Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin).


Perry did not put the bill on his veto list.


At issue is Senate Bill 1596, a measure that would change the way that the city interacts with the Emergency Service Districts that provide fire and EMS service to jurisdictions that fall outside Austin city limits. The legislation, however, appears aimed at the city’s recent annexation of the Circuit of the Americas racetrack.


According to Leffingwell, the bill was “amended at the request of the Austin Firefighters Association, a labor union” to require the city “to immediately and automatically provide full equipping and staffing for emergency services, without contracting with other adjacent entities.” He also argues that it “requires the annexing city to provide the same level of services as the emergency services district.” To this, Leffingwell suggests there is no way to measure the level of service “in the district…before annexation.”


Leffingwell also cites two constitutional issues: The fact that the bill uses a closed population bracket, meaning that it applies only to Austin, and that – with a portion of the bill that would allow for both an ESD and city control – the measure could expose residents to the problem of double taxation.


That, Leffingwell argues, “will make cities reticent about annexing territory in their extra-territorial jurisdiction that is in an emergency services district.” Taken together, Leffingwell suggests that the bill would effectively “punish the city by restricting its ability to annex any territory.”


More remarkably, Leffingwell’s indictment of the firefighters association would go against a long political relationship that the Mayor has had with all of the city’s public safety unions.


Austin annexed Circuit of the Americas last fall. That action was met with vocal worry from the chief of the emergency services district that would otherwise have collected the tax dollars from the facility.


“Our concern is that our risk is inversely proportionate to our tax base now,” Chief Ken Bailey told Council members at the time. “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 (Grand Prix) race.” (See In Fact Daily, Nov. 9, 2012.)

Bailey suggested that Council members leave Emergency Services District 11 in place after it annexed the facility – a move that the Austin Firefighters Association suggested might be illegal. (See In Fact Daily Oct. 12, 2012.) The loss of the track costs ESD 11 a significant amount of tax revenue that is generated by the facility. 


Bailey told In Fact Daily on Thursday that Senate Bill 1596 was designed to ensure that residents of the portions of ESD 11 that were left intact would not receive diminished service after the track’s annexation. “They need to provide the same level of service as before,” he said.


Bailey added that the measure would also prevent a city from annexing a portion of an ESD, and then requiring the ESD to continue providing service in the annexed portion of its service area through an automatic service contract, such as the one that is in place between Austin and its surrounding ESDs.


“The automatic service agreement (became) a tool for them to use us as a proxy,” Bailey said, noting that the city collects taxes at the facility, but then doesn’t pay for the emergency service infrastructure needed to service it.


Bailey also strongly disputed the contents of Leffingwell’s letter. “That letter is not an accurate representation of the effects of this bill,” he offered.


Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) carried the bill in the Senate. She told In Fact Daily via email that “a city’s power to annex territory is not addressed in SB 1596.” Instead, she argued that the bill “focuses on emergency services for life and death situations that require the very best equipment and training.


“Even as the Circuit of the Americas racetrack brings substantial economic benefits to the City of Austin, we must ensure that residents who live nearby and visitors to the facility are protected by the highest-quality public safety services in the event of an emergency,” she continued.


Zaffirini also commented on the nature of the relationship between city emergency services and those at the track. “Because of an automatic aid agreement in place between the City of Austin and Travis County Emergency Service District 11, the district provides primary emergency response services to the Circuit of the Americas,” Zaffirini wrote.


“Now that the City has annexed the race track, ESD 11 still provides those services under the automatic aid agreement while experiencing a loss of $1.5 million to $2 million in revenue annually. This revenue loss jeopardizes services not only for the racetrack, but also for all the Travis County taxpayers served by ESD 11. Meanwhile, taxpayers within the annexed areas have seen their taxes rise substantially. The goal of my bill is to ensure that annexed residents and businesses do not see an increased tax bill while experiencing decreased public safety services. “


State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) sponsored the house version of the legislation. “All too often, first responder services are taken for granted as our city grows. We can’t just assume firefighters and EMS are going to be there,” he told In Fact Daily via email. “We have to pay for these services if we want the high quality we’ve enjoyed in the past. This bill just makes sure there is a plan for emergency services in Austin‘s newest territories.”


The late nature of the letter from Leffingwell may illustrate that the legislation did not appear on the city’s legislative radar as it was winning approval. Zaffirini seems to confirm that notion.


“No representative of the City of Austin registered opposition or provided testimony during the public committee hearings regarding the bill,” she wrote in her email. “Anyone interested in or concerned about the bill could have participated in the legislative process by attending hearings and offering constructive suggestions about how to improve the bill.”


Leffingwell implies that the issue may find its way to court. “The proper place to resolve the dispute between the ESD and the city over who should pay for the unnecessary fire equipment is the courts, not the legislature,” he writes.

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