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Pflugerville FD, city residents raise alarm about tax rate petition

Thursday, January 12, 2023 by Emma Freer

Officials from the Pflugerville Fire Department and city residents fired back against an initiative petition they say would slash the department’s budget and force layoffs if approved by voters. 

“Without that revenue, we would not be able to maintain and sustain our current operations,” Pflugerville Fire Chief Nick Perkins told the Austin Monitor Wednesday. “So, we’re really concerned about this. It’s a significant attack on the fire department and an effort to defund us.”

Pflugerville Residents for Responsible Taxation spearheaded the petition, which aims to reduce the local sales and use tax rate levied by PFD from 0.5 percent to 0 percent within city limits and from 1 percent to 0.5 percent in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction. 

PRRT submitted more than 7,000 signed petitions to the PFD on Dec. 16, according to its campaign website. Pending validation, the group expects the petition to be included on the May 6 election ballot. At the same time, it is advocating for the city of Pflugerville to include a proposition on the ballot that would recoup any sales and use tax revenue.

“We want our City Council, who we can elect or unelect, to be in charge of our (emergency) services,” campaign spokesperson Melody Ryan told the Monitor on Wednesday. 

PRRT says the impetus for its petition is that PFD stopped providing advanced life support and ambulance services to the city of Pflugerville in January. (PFD, also known as Travis County Emergency Services District No. 2, is an independent government entity.) The city has since contracted with a private ambulance company, Allegiance, while maintaining that it aims to develop its own EMS department.

“They’re taking our taxes and not providing the services, which is why we felt it was imperative to take this step,” Ryan said.

But Perkins said negotiations between the city of Pflugerville and PFD regarding its EMS contract broke down after the city refused its bid for additional funding. Such funding was necessary, he added, because of the city’s population growth and a new state law, passed in 2019, which capped the amount of new tax revenue that municipalities could collect annually, among other factors. 

“We were not going to be able to grow the fire department and provide the EMS service out of a singular budget,” he told the Monitor.

Perkins argued that the petition would exacerbate the department’s funding challenges, reducing its annual operating budget by nearly one third, or approximately $10 million to $15 million, and forcing layoffs of 80 to 100 firefighters and staff positions, driving up EMS response times. 

The Pflugerville Professional Firefighters Association echoed these concerns in a Dec. 7 Facebook post.

“The underlying goal of this petition is to defund the Pflugerville Fire Department … and transfer all of those funds away from the fire department and give (them) to the city,” the union wrote. “The city currently uses a for-profit EMS service … that charges the highest rates in the area but is a zero cost for the city.”

Ryan disputed these claims, saying PFD’s budget surplus and unfilled staff positions mean the department could continue to operate at its current standard if the petition is approved.

“We support our first responders and our firefighters,” she said. “Our issue is with their financial forecast and their appointed leadership.”

Still, Pflugerville residents pushed back against the petition effort during a Pflugerville City Council meeting Tuesday

“We’ve got a lot of experience, professionalism and institutional knowledge in (PFD), and it would be a travesty and a disservice to this community to throw this all away,” Mack Harrison told Council members. “The last thing we need to do is defund our fire department.”

Terry Lucas criticized Council members for their handling of EMS services. 

“This is just like your decision to contract with an expensive, for-profit ambulance service rather than allowing the fire department to serve our community with its highly trained and lower-cost ambulances and expertly trained paramedics,” she said. 

Grace Nicholas, whose business, Crux Climbing Center, recently opened its third location in Pflugerville, also spoke. 

“When I think about defunding (PFD), I worry about my business and the risk that is there, the liability of them not being able to respond quickly enough.” 

Perkins told the Monitor he has faith in the Pflugerville electorate. Still, he worries about what might happen if the petition makes it onto the May ballot.

“The challenge is getting the word out, making sure the voters understand what’s at stake,” he said. “And it’s really hard to do when you have a professional interest group trying to cloud the facts of the subject.”

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