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Elizabeth Pagano is the editor of the Austin Monitor.
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Public Safety Commission discusses EMS System structural issues
Tuesday, August 6, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano
The Public Safety Commission waded into ongoing issues surrounding Travis County Emergency Service Districts on Monday afternoon. And while the commission postponed taking an in-depth look at the problem, it could be the beginning of engagement with an issue that has been troubling the county for some time.
Travis County’s Director of Emergency Services Danny Hobby made it clear that he was speaking only for himself, and distributed a document that detailed why, in his opinion, the current system needed to change. He said that, as they exist, Emergency Service Districts are not sustainable in the long term due to limited funding, population growth, and annexations.
Hobby laid out seven options for unifying the current system. He explained that he wasn’t endorsing any of the options specifically, only the end result. He asked the commission to think about an authority for public safety that would have one tax for taxpayers.
“Right now if you are a City of Austin taxpayer, which I am, we now have double taxation in my opinion,” said Hobby. “If you were to look at trying to bring together the duplication of effort and look at all the public safety entities… that’s where you actually are going to save money in the future.”
“Regionalization is something I’ve fought for my whole career,” said Hobby. “We need to unify. We need to come together.”
The seven unendorsed options presented by Hobby included implementation of performance-based contracting, allowing the county to run the entire system, creation of an overlay for the entire county, and creation of a regional system with surrounding counties.
Members of the Public Safety Commission worried that the complicated system was currently outside of their grasp, and ultimately elected to include more discussion at an upcoming meeting.
“I feel a fair amount of frustration. We’ve been dealing with EMS issues for some time. A lot of this stuff is pretty complex. And for those of us that weren’t experts, it’s hard to know how to proceed,” said Commissioner Kim Rossmo. “There are seven options here, and I would have no idea of what to recommend to City Council… It reaches a level of complexity that makes us kind of flounder.”
The commission shied away from one of Hobby’s suggestions that he called “low-hanging fruit,” asking the commission to recommend resurrection of an existing but dormant committee of two City Council members and two Travis County Commissioners that could allow the bodies to work cooperatively on the issue.
“That committee still exists, it’s just that it hasn’t been operating for years. So if we want to have dialogue at the Council level and at the Commissioners Court level, I would recommend that you think about recommending that we activate that joint task force. Because, not only would we talk about EMS, but we could talk about any city-county issue,” said Hobby.
Hobby pointed out that annexations by county municipalities were causing districts to become erratic. Some county municipalities are growing, others are shrinking, and coordination is needed to address the funding and service impacts of all of these changes.
Additionally, Hobby said that some of the county EMS stations have extremely low utilization percentages, with half of the stations below 10 percent utilization. He said that current and ongoing cooperation between the city and county could help establish better locations for stations.
Austin/ Travis County EMS Association President Tony Marquardt also spoke to the commission, stressing the need for transparency in any process. He warned the commission that any reductions in services should be suspect.