Inadequate budgets force Travis Co. ESDs to make tough choices

While the station has trucks and equipment, it no longer is staffed

JONESTOWN, Texas (KXAN) — Thirteen Emergency Service Districts serve Travis County. They protect thousands of homeowners from fires and medical emergencies.

In ESD 1, which serves northwest Travis County,  the number of calls is going up but the staffing isn’t growing. They’re making tough decisions about where to place firefighters in the district.

“I have to make the unpopular decision,” said Chief Donnie Norman.

Norman says he can only afford to staff 9 firefighters to cover about 170 square miles, when he really needs about 15.

“Where do I put people that I have, what is safe for our firefighters, how can we serve the most citizens the best on our small budget?” Norman explained.

The Texas Constitution limits the amount of taxes emergency service districts can charge, up to 10-cents per $100 of property value. For a $200,000 home, the ESD can only get $200 a year to operate. That law has not changed in nearly two decades.

“I don’t know of an ESD in Travis County that is not struggling in some form or fashion,” said Chief Norman. “We’re not struggling in the fact that we’re going away, but we can’t grow our department like we need to grow the department.”

It costs about $500,000 to staff a station with 3 firefighters 24 hours, 7 days a week. The budget for ESD No. 1 is around $2.5 million; Chief Norman says it needs to be around $5 million.

Of the six stations, they’ve moved staffing to two centrally located stations where most of the calls are. The most recent change happened in December, with two firefighters at North Lake Travis Fire/Rescue moved to another location.

Homeowners say they weren’t aware of the change, but now that they are, they’re concerned.

“It’s good to have the infrastructure down the road, but we need people,” said John Lamphear, who lives in the district.

Lamphear knows firsthand how critical fast response is. Five years ago, he had a heart attack.

“If they had not gotten here as quickly as they did, I very well could’ve died,” said Lamphear. He’s also upset that neighbors weren’t informed of the staffing changes. But while they’re not staffed, the stations still have trucks and equipment.

Chief Norman says his district deserves as much protection as any big city, but that their budget is paralyzing the mission to do so.

He says the funding isn’t a county issue, but a state issue that needs to be addressed by lawmakers.

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