Texas city looks to recover millions spent on EMS at festivals

Taxpayers covered $4.25 million for police, ambulances and fire protection at festivals last year; a city panel is exploring ways to recover the funds


By Philip Jankowski
Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas — Austin taxpayers covered $4.25 million of the cost of providing police, ambulances and fire protection for festivals last year, according to a recent report, and a city panel is looking at ways to recover as much of that money as possible.

The Public Safety Commission reviewed those costs earlier this month in an effort to better pare down on the total cost of festivals.

In a report from the Austin Center for Events, the agencies reported their total expenses from events like South by Southwest and the Austin City Limits Festival. During a review of those expenses earlier this month, Austin police Assistant Chief Brian Manley said the department projected $1.4 million in special events expenses this year that will not be reimbursed.

“They are definitely city tax dollars that we would have used for other operations, if not for this,” Manley said.

Special events and the role emergency personnel play in staffing them have come under the microscope in the wake of the SXSW crash that killed four people.

In the case of SXSW, the overtime cost for police was $475,000 for the entire festival. The city granted a fee waiver of $340,000 and Austin police officials are working on billing the event for the difference — but first they must determine what constituted overtime directly tied to the event.

Mike Levy, one of the commissioners, said other expenses cannot be quantified.

During large festivals, Austin police will place more officers on the streets. Detectives will take on patrol shifts, temporarily making them unable to work on their caseloads, Manley said.

And Austin-Travis EMS bills special events under the same hourly cost it takes to have paramedics in the area. In the current fiscal year, the gap been the bills and actual expenses was $359,000, Assistant Chief James Shamard said.

EMS will bill at a higher rate in the next fiscal year, but it will not close that gap entirely.

“We would be so over market that then they would go hire private vendors,” Shamard said. That would cause concern with the level of service, and Austin-Travis EMS would still have to respond to emergencies in which patients require transport to hospitals — all at no cost to the vendor.

As for the costs of fire protection, Austin fire Battalion Chief David Brietzke said nearly all overtime costs are reimbursed and fees are charged to make up for the work of additional fire marshals and vehicle wear and tear.

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©2014 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

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