In the small northwest Travis County village of Volente, the fire department spent $4,335 per call last year. Meanwhile, the average fire department call in the Pflugerville area cost $1,637. The department near Lake Travis that includes Lakeway spent $2,330 per call.
The disparities illustrate the patchwork system of 13 fire departments serving Travis County, outside the city of Austin, where about a quarter-million people live. Some departments contend with an eroding tax base as Austin grows and annexes land formerly taxed by fire districts. And tax revenue varies widely depending on property values and the population in each district.
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What is an emergency services district?
Emergency services districts are political subdivisions allowed by state law in 1989 to provide fire and emergency medical service, typically in unincorporated areas and small cities.
There are 280 districts in 84 counties, according to data from the state comptroller’s office. Most districts in Travis County were created in the 1990s.
Voters in a particular area need to vote to create a district, which can tax up to 10 cents of $100 of property value. Districts can also levy up to two cents of sales tax, by permission of voters.
A five-member board of directors, appointed by county commissioners, oversees each district, approving its budget, appointing its fire chief and setting its policies.