Photo by Phyllis Campos
Planned annexation of River Place to cut more than $500,000 from ESD’s tax revenue, data shows
Maxed-out tax rates and a potentially shrinking district could cause Travis County Emergency Services District No. 6 to cut back on fire stations and crew in the near future, said Jim Linardos, Lake Travis Fire Rescue chief.
With planned annexations by the City of Austin, ESD No. 6 is being forced to plan for the worst and look for possible solutions to a shrinking budget and change in service area.
Linardos has been working on a long-term plan to keep ESD No. 6 ahead of the game in order to provide the best service possible for its coverage area, he said.
Austin will annex River Place, which lies in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, an unincorporated area beyond a municipality’s borders, in 2017. The economic impact the River Place annexation will have on ESD No. 6 is something that Linardos is planning for, he said.
“It will have an estimated impact on [ESD No. 6] in the $500,000 range,” Linardos said. “If the same thing [annexation] happens to Steiner [Ranch], the impact would be even more dramatic.”
The potential annexation of Steiner Ranch by the City of Austin—although not currently in the works, according to Austin City Planner Virginia Collier—is something that Linardos and ESD No. 6 are planning for.
“I don’t know if [Austin is] ever going to annex [Steiner Ranch],” Linardos said. “When I look at it from a long-term planning point of view, it’s something we have to be concerned about and something we have to plan [for]. It will impact us if and when that happens.”
The annexation of Steiner Ranch would be a big decision and would take a number of years to plan, Collier said.
Fire departments generally plan 10 to 20 years ahead because of the time it takes to add a new fire station to the books, Linardos said.
Limited tax dollars
ESDs by state law can only tax property owners in the county up to 10 cents per $100 of valuation. ESD No. 6 also receives funding from a 1.75 percent sales tax on qualifying goods sold in the ESD’s jurisdiction.
This results in the district receiving roughly $10 million in funding each year, about half the amount received by comparable city fire departments, Linardos said.
The money brought in by tax dollars is an unsustainable business model, said Barker Keith II, Lake Travis Fire and Rescue Commissioner-President.
“A vast majority of ESDs are really hampered with what they can do,” Linardos said. “It’s a problem. We want to do the right thing for the community, and the community wants good fire protection with what they pay their taxes for. It’s something we are working on in our long-term plan.”
If annexations continue and tax dollars are not increased, the funding for ESD No. 6 will continue to erode and force the district to start closing fire stations, Linardos said.
The approximately $517,000 that will be lost from the planned annexation of River Place will not force ESD No. 6 to close any stations, but it will keep the district from growing and could affect response times, Linardos said.
“That’s going to put a squeeze on a problem that we already have, and that is we are underfunded,” Keith said. “We have to find a mechanism to solve that.”
“I’m not a big enough district to absorb a half a million bucks without there being an impact,” Linardos said. “If I lose another half-million-dollar chunk, I have to start looking at closing stations. I don’t want to scare people, but that’s what’s going to happen.”
ESD No. 6, whether a fire station is in Bee Cave or Steiner Ranch, works together as one unit, Linardos said. Closing stations or cutting staff in any location will affect the quality of service for the entire district, he said.
Service to both Lakeway and Bee Cave could suffer as a result of closed stations, Linardos said. A series of four or five fire engines from across the district will be sent to fires. This includes the ladder truck, which is currently stationed in Steiner Ranch.
“If you don’t get an engine [to a fire] in 10 minutes to 15 minutes, it’s over,” Linardos said. “That’s just the business we’re in, and that’s part of the problem. People expect city service, but they aren’t paying city prices.”
As people move out of the city and move to the suburbs they’re not expecting county-type fire service. They are expecting urban delivery results, Keith said.
“They expect when they dial 911 for someone to be there in four minutes, like downtown Austin. We can’t do that here. We don’t have enough fire stations,” Keith said.
One of the possibilities going forward is for ESD No. 6 to contract for service with the City of Austin, something administrations on both ends are currently discussing, Linardos said.
“It is one thing we are looking at right now to help solve this to where we have a seamless [transition],” Linardos said. “If [more annexation] looks like it’s going to happen, this could be one way to minimize the impact of that.
“If you do a contract for service with the city—there are a handful of districts looking at that now, not just us—I think it is a viable option we need to consider,” Linardos said.
ESD No. 6 is also looking at a potential overlay district, in which two districts overlap, effectively doubling the taxable income from 10 cents to 20 cents per $100 valuation, Linardos said. To overlay the district, the ESD would need approval from the cities in the service area as well as voter approval, he said.
“[Overlaying distracts] is very complicated,” Linardos said. “It would be raising taxes, and the question is, would that be a good thing right now?”
With the City of Austin migrating west, it becomes more involved with fire service in the area served by ESD No. 6, Linardos said.
“The neat thing is we are working together, and the public doesn’t know that,” Linardos said. “The public doesn’t care what it says on the side of the engine when they show up. They don’t know the difference, and we don’t tell them the difference.
The public wants good staff, friendly service and they want it to be competent.The agencies here do a great job of working together to the point where the public doesn’t even realize, Linardos said.
“People don’t care what their fire response time is until they call 911. Then they care,” Linardos said. “It’s a little slower than I want it to be, but I can’t fix that until I add more [fire] companies, and I can’t do that if we keep losing revenue.”