Austin Fire, EMS discuss needs, 2014 budget


by ASHLEY GOUDEAU / KVUE News and Photojournalist CHRIS GARCIA

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Posted on May 2, 2013 at 6:05 PM

Updated Thursday, May 16 at 12:56 PM

AUSTIN -- Almost everywhere you look in Austin, there is something going up and someone coming in. Each day between 150 and 180 people move into the Capitol City. Plus, there are numerous festivals, South by Southwest for starters, that bring in people from around the world. It's good for business, but a challenge for public safety.

"We're dealing with explosive growth, which is a great thing, and it's wonderful to have that energy in the city, but we have to have the number of people appropriate to help us meet those demands and needs," said Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr. 

The needs of a growing population are center stage in the city council's Fiscal Year 2014 budget workshop.

The total budget is projected to be about $3 billion. The estimated general fund, which provides for the city's 19 service departments, is $784 million. Of that, nearly $517 million will go to public safety.

Fire officials are asking for $144.6 million to run the department. That is 4.2 percent more than the current budget of $138.8 million.

In addition to that, the department is lobbying to get another $2.29 million for unmet needs. That money would provide for nine new fire positions, including four lieutenants to inspect new and existing properties, three firefighters to aid with special evens and two lieutenants for wildfire prevention and mitigation. Kerr also wants to add 15 full-time civilian positions. Ten of those are temporary positions the department already has; the other five are an engineer, an administrator to help with engineering efforts, a research and planning position, an IT position and a payroll position. 

"Particularly in our fire prevention, engineering section is really where we're trying to bring up our staffing, special events so we can respond and be responsive to the community in a timely manner," said Kerr. "It's not only F1, it's all the events that go on out there, it's South by Southwest, ACL is two weekends this year. I just heard something the other day on the radio it's gonna be another event, festival that's coming to town, wanting to do their event in Austin. I mean there's always something that requires inspections and permitting, and we want to be able to do a good job for our community. We want them to stay safe, and yet we still want them to have a great time and enjoy the city of Austin."

Austin-Travis County EMS (ATCEMS) is in the same position.

"Population is what creates call volume," said ATCEMS Chief Ernesto Rodriguez.

The department needs$58.7 million, 5.6 percent more money than last fiscal year. Officials are also asking for an additional $750,000 for mandatory training. Paramedics have to perform 48 hours of training a year and Rodriguez says when the recession hit, funding for training was cut and never restored. Rodriguez would also like the council to give EMS $500,000 for an additional ambulance and crew of six in South Austin.

"When we look at late calls, calls that are arriving beyond our response time goal. About 48 percent of those are happening in the southern region of Austin," said Rodriguez. "The majority of our calls are really only seconds late, but that's an indicator. If we don't start to catch up with those few seconds, and do it early, then we'll end up minutes late."

Those are safety situations the city wants to avoid, if it can carve out the money to do so. If the council can't give the departments all they need, officials say they will manage.

"We will continue to do as much as we can with the resources we have. But what happens is it's the customer that ends up suffering because so many people can only do so much at one time," said Kerr.

The FY 2014 budget goes into effect October 1, 2013. The council is set to approve the budget in September.