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Western Travis County overlay ESD may provide critical revenue to struggling area

Thursday, January 31, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Emergency Services District 8 in western Travis County will soon be giving voters a chance to pay more taxes in exchange for much-needed service improvements.

Following a public hearing Tuesday morning, the Commissioners Court unanimously approved ESD 8’s petition to hold an election this May for an overlay ESD that will bring in additional tax revenue from area residents. Presenting the proposed ESD 16 to the court, ESD 8 President Debra Opdahl said the area lacks other means of keeping up with the growing demand for services.

Opdahl said the area, extending west from Lakeway, suffers from limited water and wastewater availability, which restricts its ability to rely on sales tax revenue. At the same time, she said, explosive growth of the surrounding areas is “placing a tremendous strain on our limited resources.” While local population growth has led to a 54 percent increase in the volume of calls over the last five years, traffic congestion on State Highway 71 has simultaneously impaired the district’s operations, she said.

ESD 8 is a sparsely populated district with a service area of 54 square miles. Due to its size, Opdahl said response time is usually still 6 to 9 minutes under the best conditions. District officials hope tax revenue from ESD 16 will allow them to add first responders with advanced medical certification to each shift so that medical services can begin the moment a truck arrives.

Offering competitive compensation has also been a major struggle for ESD 8. The district has the lowest base pay for starting ranks of any other Travis County ESD, which often results in employees leaving shortly after their training is completed. “We spend a substantial amount of money and resources recruiting and training these folks and then they get recruited by another ESD,” Opdahl said.

Commissioner Rusty Jedlicka of ESD 8 said these financial problems are too big for the district to solve by raising its own tax rates.

“If you were to look at the deficit that we were forecasting, if we were to try to provide this level of services, we need roughly $1.2 million in the first year to be able to roll this program out,” he said. “That would require us essentially to double our sales tax revenue within that first year. That’s not going to happen.”

To provide the level of care needed in the area, the ESD 8 board estimates a 6 cent per $100 valuation tax rate will be necessary for ESD 16. If approved, however, the May vote will authorize the district to increase that rate up to 10 cents per $100.

While roughly 71 percent of the area is not tied to any municipality, the proposed district contains four voting blocs – the village of Briarcliff, an extraterritorial jurisdiction of Briarcliff, a small portion of the city of Lakeway, and an ETJ of Lakeway – which will independently decide whether or not to be included in the new ESD. If any one of these districts opted out of the ESD, the proposed sales tax would be raised for the rest of the district to compensate for the revenue loss.

Though such a scenario would put a financial strain on the district, Jedlicka said the district would still be able to provide better services even if all four voting blocs chose not to join the ESD.

“The reason these overlays are so important is because we know that going to the Legislature to allow you to bust the 10-cent cap on fire and EMS may be something that will never get done,” Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said.

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Kyle R. Welshans/Released.

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