Commissioners Court endorses ESD-17 for May ballot
Thursday, February 11, 2021 by Seth Smalley
The Commissioners Court held a public hearing Tuesday on a contentious ballot initiative to create a new emergency services district overlay. After hearing from proponents and opponents alike, ultimately the commissioners unanimously endorsed the referendum, which will appear on ballots this May.
As it stands, the petitioners – led by the Pflugerville Firefighters Association – claim the area is insufficiently served by the existing district, ESD-2. While the fire services in the area are adequate, proponents claim a new district overlay, ESD-17, is necessary to provide ample emergency medical services. If approved by voters, the initiative will create a new district, with a corresponding tax increase.
A property tax increase of 6 cents per $100 valuation would generate $2.5 million annually, enough for three ambulances and two paramedic squads.
“The members of the community and the firefighters initiated a petition back in August of 2020 to create ESD-17. During that petition, we created more than 4,700 signatures across the district,” said Josh Stubblefield, president of the Pflugerville firefighters.
The ballot initiative was struck down by the Pflugerville, Hutto and Round Rock city councils, both in 2013 and in 2020 – those areas would be excluded from the service district. Last Thursday, Austin City Council consented to the initiative, joining Manor and Taylor.
Opponents of the effort want more time to consider the issue, rebutting the notion that ESD-2 is underfunded or underserved. They have called for independent audits of the district and have contested the tax increases the overlay would bring.
Susan Gazana, the Democratic precinct chair for Precinct 229 in Wells Branch, spoke in favor of creating the overlay.
“Please approve items 1 and 3 to allow the residents of Wells Branch to vote on the creation of emergency services district 17, the medical overlay,” Gazana said, pointing out that the Wells Branch MUD Board of Directors had also voted in favor of the overlay’s creation. “The district should have a voice in determining whether the medical overlay district is ultimately created. I truly believe it’s our right to vote on this, and we should be given that opportunity.”
Melody Ryan, a local Pflugerville CPA and auditor, spoke out against the proposal. “I oppose creating an overlay district to separate fire and EMS services and to double taxes. I urge you to deny the petition.”
She pointed to the fact that an overlay was proposed and shot down in 2013 and again in 2020, by Pflugerville, Round Rock and Hutto. This reduces the size of the overlay by 70 percent, according to Ryan.
“It doesn’t make sense to remove current services to everyone to only serve 30 percent of the residents in a disjointed service area when there are more viable options,” Ryan said.
Ryan furthered her case by pointing out revenue increases in the district far outpaced population increases, and will continue to, according to five-year projections. She asserted that according to financial statements from 2017, the district had $10.5 million in net surplus and $18 million in cash investments. This marked a 325 percent increase in cash, according to Ryan.
“ESD-2 can serve all residents with the current funding structure,” she said, adding, “Incomplete and faulty assumptions in their forecasts have created incorrect information,” before reaching the three-minute time limit for speakers.
Pflugerville City Council Member David Rogers explained his city’s position to the commissioners. “We are concerned with the lack of reliability and transparency of some of the projections.”
Rogers also noted that Pflugerville had hired an outside consultant to assess the need for an overlay, and he raised concerns over popular misconceptions surrounding the costs and budget of ESD-2. “It would be an undue rush to push this onto the ballot in May. We think we have incomplete information, and quite frankly, we are concerned there has been inaccurate information deliberately pushed into public discussion about this.”
Several other Pflugerville Council members expressed similar sentiments, calling for more time to allow for independent audits before May.
After opponents and advocates had argued their cases, Commissioner Brigid Shea expressed support for the ballot initiative.
“I don’t think it’s unreasonable,” Shea said. “While I appreciate the requests from Pflugerville City Council and others to delay action so they can study, their study would only cover Pflugerville; it wouldn’t include the city of Austin ETJ (extraterritorial jurisdiction), the Manor ETJ or the Taylor ETJ. And we legally can’t stop the state law clock to give them more time, when frankly, they’ve known about this since 2013.”
“They’re not allowing any of their residents in the Pflugerville ETJ to even have a say in it,” she added. “What they’re asking us to do is not allow any of the other residents in any of the other jurisdictions outside Pflugerville and outside ETJ to have a say on it. I don’t think that’s correct.”
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