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County orders election for new emergency services district

Wednesday, August 17, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The Travis County Commissioners Court has called for an election this November that could create a new emergency services district in the county’s rural Northwestern corner.

The proposed Emergency Services District No. 7 would largely share the same boundaries as ESD No. 1 and give a boost to the area’s medical response capabilities.

ESD No. 1 Chief Donnie Norman told the court that his sprawling district has hit the state-imposed ceiling on its tax rate and is currently able to staff only a third of the firefighters it needs.

“That’s one firefighter for every 20 square miles,” Norman explained. “The ESD does not have the funds or the resources to build additional fire stations. And we have no funds available to hire additional personnel that we need.”

Currently, ESD No. 1 taxes property owners 10 cents per $100 of valuation and is statutorily forbidden to raise that rate. However, the Legislature allows the creation of overlapping districts. If voters approve ESD No. 7, the total tax rate for emergency services could in theory be doubled.

The plan as it stands now would be to dedicate ESD No. 7 personnel to emergency medical services exclusively. Those first responders would deploy with ESD No. 1 fire engines, providing advanced life support, or ALS, on calls for which traditional EMS units are typically slower to arrive.

Urging the court on Tuesday to consider delaying the election to create ESD No. 7 was Tony Marquardt, president of the Austin/Travis County Emergency Medical Services Employee Association. He said that ESD No. 7’s operation under its own medical director – rare for an ESD – could cause disharmony in the region’s emergency response strategy.

“When that happens, there needs to be an agreement as to how to provide services so that you have efficiencies, because what you want to have is a continuity of care, clinical care, and not an isolationist-type situation,” said Marquardt.

The court’s deadline to set the November election is Aug. 22, the day before its next scheduled voting session. If it had opted to delay the vote, the next opportunity to put ESD No. 7 on the ballot would have been in May.

Norman assured the court that any potential discord between medical directors and emergency strategies could be ironed out well before the November election.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, in whose district the new ESD boundaries would be drawn, indicated his support for the proposal early on in the long discussion. However, he did question whether it was all a scheme to score hefty raises for the existing firefighters in ESD No. 1.

Norman said that his crews are currently the lowest paid in the county.

“Our firefighters start out at $9 an hour,” said Norman. “They top out at a salary that is less money than a starting employee for Austin/Travis County EMS. So to think that we would give pay raises, I would be very deceptive to tell you that that wouldn’t happen. But that is certainly not the plan here.”

Ultimately, the court voted 3-0-1 to determine that the plan to create ESD No. 7 is both feasible and would “promote the public safety, welfare, health and convenience” of residents within the proposed district. Commissioner Brigid Shea abstained, and Commissioner Margaret Gómez was temporarily absent. The vote to order the election was 3-0-2, with Gómez joining Shea in her abstention.

The cities of Lago Vista, Jonestown and Point Venture have agreed to be included in ESD No. 7 if voters give their approval. If they do, the new district’s only geographical distinction from ESD No. 1 would be the absence of Travis County’s share of the Leander and Cedar Park extraterritorial jurisdictions.

The creation of ESD No. 7 would constitute a rebirth of sorts. The district existed in a smaller form before being consolidated into ESD No. 1 in 2005.

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