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Council seeks to reverse decision on Hays County emergency service district

Tuesday, June 14, 2016 by Jack Craver

It wasn’t just Austinites who were inconvenienced by the absence of Mayor Steve Adler and two City Council members during last week’s Council meeting.

Several dozen families who live in a 5-acre area of Hays County that is located within Austin’s extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) may not be able to vote on whether to join a new emergency services district proposed for a large portion of Hays County because Council failed by one vote to grant them permission to partake in the November election.

Adler and Council members Ann Kitchen and Delia Garza were in Washington, D.C., as part of Austin’s bid to win the Smart Cities grant. But even in their absence, six votes were required to pass the item to allow the Hays County residents to choose whether to join the district.

The estimated 30 or so homes affected by the decision currently receive their emergency medical services through the San Marcos Hays County EMS, explained John Carlton, an attorney representing that department. But even though the new district will have no impact on Austin services, the city is required by state law to grant permission to those residents to join an ESD because they live in its ETJ. After supporters of the ESD submit the request, the city has 60 days to grant its consent before it is automatically denied.

Because the request was submitted to the city on April 13, last week’s Council meeting may have been the city’s last chance to consent.

“It’s my understanding that by saying no to folks today on that item, it won’t be on the ballot because even if we bring it back next week, it’s too late for it to get approved and put on the ballot,” Council Member Leslie Pool told the Austin Monitor shortly after the vote at the June 9 meeting.

And yet, the item remains on the agenda for the upcoming Council meeting on Thursday, and a spokesperson for the city said it can still be approved this week.

State law dictates that if a city fails to grant consent, a majority of the voters in the affected area can ask the city to reconsider by delivering a petition to Council within 90 days after the original request was submitted.

But they would be running against some tough deadlines. Hays County Elections Administrator Joyce Cowan told the Monitor that for the referendum to be included on the November ballot, it must be “ordered and approved” by Aug. 22.

Council voted twice on the measure during the meeting. On the first vote, only Council Member Ellen Troxclair voted against, with Council members Ora Houston and Pio Renteria abstaining.

Renteria later explained that he did not fully understand the issue and that he wanted to vote in favor. He realized that it wouldn’t cost the city anything, he said, and that if the city failed to allow the Hays County area to join the new ESD, there would be families “in harm’s way.”

However, Renteria wasn’t the only one to change his vote. Council Member Don Zimmerman, upon further consideration, decided to switch from supporting the request to abstaining. He highlighted the case of Travis County ESD 4, which has been fragmented in recent years as the city of Austin has annexed parts of its former territory.

Carlton told Zimmerman that the two situations were not similar and that it was unlikely the city would annex one part of the Hays County territory being discussed. Zimmerman reiterated his point, however, thus dooming the vote.

Troxclair was the only avowed opponent of granting consent, arguing that creating a taxing authority governed by unelected officials did not seem like the most “effective or transparent way to improve services.”

Houston did not indicate why she abstained from the vote. She could not be reached for comment on Monday.

After the second vote, Pool expressed bewilderment that Council would deny a small group of people a chance to vote on the matter.

“It’s my feeling (that) it’s their decision to make whether they would like to support it with their tax dollars; it’s not mine to keep them from supporting it or not supporting it through their voting,” she said.

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