For some residents in Texas, emergency medical and firefighting services are provided through their municipality. For Texans who live in unincorporated areas, those residents may receive emergency medical and firefighting services through an emergency services district (ESD).
Emergency services districts (ESDs) are special purpose districts that provide critical fire and/or emergency medical services to communities in unincorporated areas. Special purpose districts are independent political subdivisions in state statute that provide certain judicial, political, electoral, or administrative services, and are given the ability to levy taxes, sell property, issue bonds, and engage in other transactions or activities. ESDs can either directly provide emergency medical and firefighting services, or through a contract with an independent service provider. Currently, there are over 300 ESDs in Texas.
ESDs are governed by a five-member board of commissioners. ESD commissioners are often appointed by the commissioners court of the county within which the ESD is located, and appointed ESD commissioners serve two-year terms. However, ESD commissioners may be elected by the residents to four-year terms if the ESD meets two exceptions outlined in Texas statute:
- If an ESDs’ boundaries cross into more than one county; and
- If an ESD located wholly in an entire county meets one or more of three specific requirements stated in Texas statute.
At this time, there are only three counties in Texas, Harris, Smith, and Orange counties, that meet the requirements to have their ESD board of commissioners elected to four-year terms instead of appointed to two-year terms, for an ESD located wholly in one county.
ESDs in Harris County
Harris County covers 1,777 square miles with a population in 2020 of 4,731,145 residents. Approximately 1.97 million residents live in the County’s unincorporated area. There are currently 33 ESDs in unincorporated Harris County—seven ESDs provide emergency medical services only; 16 ESDs provide fire services only; and 10 ESDs provide both emergency medical and fire services.
Figure 1 below identifies the coverage area for ESDs which provide EMS service in Harris County. Figure 2 identifies the coverage area for ESDs which provide fire services in Harris County.
Emergency services districts (ESDs) primarily generate revenue through their taxing authority established in the Texas Constitution. ESDs may levy voter-approved property taxes (or ad valorem taxes) as well as collect sales tax. Revenue sources for ESDs include: (1) contracting with communities outside of the ESD boundaries to provide services to those communities, (2) the sale of assets, (3) donations and contributions, and (4) interest earned on investments.
The 33 ESDs in Harris County vary greatly in tax revenue collected, annual budget, and population size. The chart below summarizes the adopted annual budget per capita for calendar year (CY) 2021 for 30 of Harris County’s ESDs. Adopted annual budgets for three Harris County ESDs were unavailable at the time of this memo.
Key highlights from the chart below include:
- ESD No. 15 (Tomball Fire Department) reports the highest adopted annual budget per capita in CY2021, at $321 per resident (ESD No. 15 serves the smallest population of all 33 ESDs, with 9,069 residents).
- ESD No. 9 (Cy-Fair Volunteer Fire Department) serves the largest population, with 950,942 residents, and reports an adopted annual budget per capita of $113 per resident.
- ESD No. 19 (Eastex Volunteer Fire Department and, Sheldon Volunteer Fire Department) reports the lowest adopted annual budget per capita, at $10 per resident (ESD No. 19 serves the second smallest population of all 33 ESDs, with 12,128 residents).
Chart Instructions: To view the adopted annual budget per capita for CY2021 for the 30 Harris County ESDs, please hover over each bar.