Pflugerville City Council voted unanimously Feb. 5 to deny a petition for a public vote to create a new tax overlay district to Travis County Emergency Services District No. 2.
The decision means Pflugerville residents will not have to decide whether to allow up to 10 cents of new property taxes per $100 of valuation to fund additional fire department employees and equipment, but the denial could also result in the city taking on the cost and responsibility of municipal first-responder services.
“[The proposed tax] is a lot of money to put on the backs of the citizens,” Councilman Brad Marshall said. “This is not taken lightly. This is a very tax-sensitive council, and we want to be diligent.”
The proposed district—referred to as Travis County ESD No. 2A—would separate the existing fire department and first-responder services into separate branches with independent funding sources. Travis County ESD No. 2, commonly referred to as the the Pflugerville Fire Department, presently manages both fire and first-responder services for all of Pflugerville, as well as the surrounding extraterritorial jurisdictions (ETJ) of Austin, Hutto, Pflugerville and Round Rock that reside within Travis County.
First-responder services include basic life support and emergency medical technician on-site responsibilities but do not include ambulance transport of patients. Ambulance service in ESD No. 2 is provided by the City of Austin.
Marshall said before making its decision to reject the district, the council began looking into the feasibility of Pflugerville funding its own first-responder services as opposed to obligating taxpayers to a new funding district.
“What we believe is … the city could [create] its own EMS services,” Marshall said. “If ultimately we can do it less expensive, than why wouldn’t we?”
Department pleads its case
Over the course of three recent council meetings, representatives of the Pflugerville Fire Department and the Pflugerville Professional Firefighters Association presented their case for the need to create the new overlay district. Fire department representatives cited the district’s escalating response times to 911 calls and a funding gap they said was forcing them to operate off of reserve funds as reasons for the need of a new funding stream.
State law caps taxes for ESDs at 10 cents per $100 of property valuation.
“I think this is a matter of 'How is the [Pflugerville Fire Department] going to meet the needs of the community?'” said Steve Carlton, an attorney representing the PPFA.
Prior to the council’s decision, Carlton said the firefighters he represented were only asking the council to allow voters the right to decide whether to fund the additional services.
“You are not being asked to decide whether you agree or disagree with putting another district in place,” Carlton said. “What you are being asked to do … is let the voters decide if they want to improve their service. If you don’t consent, you are taking that decision out of the hands of the voters.”
Pflugerville Mayor Jeff Coleman, however, said it was his and the other council members’ responsibility to represent the interests of the voters.
“The voters did decide when they elected these five to the council,” Coleman said. “This is not a democracy, this is a representative republic.”
Although the council rejected the creation of the new taxing district within the city, the possibility exists that the areas outside of Pflugerville could still vote to fund its creation. The council joined the councils of Austin, Hutto and Round Rock in allowing residents within their respective ETJs the right to vote for or against the creation of ESD No. 2A.
“The primary logic is since we don’t currently provide services to the ETJ, it's unfair for [City Council] to speak for those residents,” Marshall said.
The next step in the process is for the Travis County Commissioners Court to decide whether to allow a public vote. The court is scheduled to discuss the issue at its Feb. 12 meeting in Austin. If the court approves the vote, residents outside of Pflugerville but within ESD No. 2 will be allowed to vote for the creation of the new district.
“An ESD 2A overlay is still a possibility for persons living in Pflugerville’s extra-territorial jurisdiction, outside the current city limits,” Pflugerville City Manager Brandon Wade said. “If nonresidents approve an additional 10 cent tax and a 2A overlay is created, the current ESD No. 2 will continue to collect 10 cents in property tax in Pflugerville for fire service, yet may no longer provide first-response emergency services in the city. The city would be responsible for the provision of first-response services for our citizens.”