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Annexation could threaten emergency response in southeastern Travis County

Tuesday, September 27, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

A small annexation in far South Austin could have big consequences for the southeastern corner of Travis County.

Last Tuesday, Chief Ken Bailey of Emergency Services District No. 11 appeared before the Travis County Commissioners Court to seek protection from the city gobbling up a 27-acre tract along Interstate 35, south of Slaughter Lane.

The site is occupied by a Holt Cat construction equipment dealership, whose sales tax proceeds contribute mightily to ESD No. 11’s coffers.

“I don’t think the city of Austin had any intent to hurt us. I don’t think they were, quite frankly, aware of the value of this piece of property to us and the services that we provide,” Bailey told the Commissioners Court.

He explained that losing the business to the city would cost the district approximately 32 percent of its annual $3.4 million budget.

“In this particular case, the impact would have been devastating because we would have lost approximately 19 firefighters, one fire station, which would include also not staffing a fire engine, a battalion chief vehicle and a squad,” Bailey said.

ESD No. 11 currently operates three fire stations that service 114 square miles of southeastern Travis County. Because land values are so low in the area, the district relies heavily on sales tax revenue for its funding.

Bailey painted an almost apocalyptic picture of what would happen if the city takes the land before the district figures out a contingency plan.

“The bottom line is that the impact of this annexation would increase response times to both the city and the county,” Bailey said. “It’s also likely to increase property loss. We would have an increasing call volume for the surrounding companies, and our community would have less confidence in the district’s ability to meet their needs. We also would have a lack of confidence on our current workforce. We would have a decrease in ability to attract new workforce.

“All those things with increased attrition leads to higher costs. Less resources in a timely manner for major incidents, and I would like to remind the court that our area has been impacted in the last 24 months by three historic floods,” Bailey said.

In a letter to Mayor Steve Adler and City Council, Planning and Zoning Department Director Greg Guernsey outlined the reasons behind the proposed annexation. He said that Austin Energy, Austin Water and the Austin Fire Department (in conjunction with the district) already service the property, almost a third of which is already inside city limits. He noted that if the land is annexed, the city would split down the middle with the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority the $1.5 million worth of sales tax revenues.

However, in light of the district’s concerns, Guernsey recommended postponing the possible annexation until next year.

On Tuesday, Bailey told the court that would buy him enough time to develop a potential solution, albeit one that might not be terribly palatable to residents. He explained that the district could ask voters in May to approve a special taxing overlay.

“Here’s the reality,” Bailey said. “I’ve got to go to some of the most economically depressed areas of the county, and I have to say, ‘Hey, in order to keep the current services that you have, I have to double your taxes.’”

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty observed that the prospect of convincing residents to raise their taxes is a daunting one. He also noted that ESD No. 11’s predicament resembles that of other ESDs across the county that find their tax bases being chewed up by annexations. Daugherty suggested that the court and county staff commit to finding a comprehensive solution.

“It’s not like the city in a year is going to go, ‘OK, we understand and we’re just not going to take hold (of the Holt Cat property),’” Daugherty predicted. “Because I think that will happen. We’ve got some really, really tough decisions to make.”

Ultimately, the court unanimously voted to support a letter to Adler signed by County Judge Sarah Eckhardt that echoed Guernsey’s request for a yearlong delay on annexation considerations for the site. That letter was dated Sept. 20. Council will consider the case at its next meeting on Thursday.

Photo courtesy of Travis County Fire Rescue.

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