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baltimoresun.com

Harford government could get new fire and EMS commission

BY BRYNA ZUMER, bzumer@theaegis.com

5:11 PM EDT, March 15, 2012

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Harford County government could be getting a permanent fire and emergency commission, as well as a revamped human relations commission, if new bills are approved by the county council.

After oversight of the county's fire and EMS services became a hot topic of debate several years ago, an emergency services master plan released in 2010 recommended a commission be formed.

The commission was established last February by executive order on a temporary basis, Bob Thomas, spokesman for Harford County Executive David Craig, said.

"The decision was made early last fall that indeed the commission was of value, made substantial progress and should be codified [in the county code]," Thomas said.

He said the administration has no intention of establishing a paid fire service or maintaining tighter control of emergency services.

"The proposal is to help enhance the current volunteer EMS and fire system in the county, and bring additional support to that system at a time when it faces challenges in volunteer recruitment and retention, staffing, budgeting issues and other operational issues," Thomas said. "Predominant among the concerns naturally are EMS dollars and the future of the Harford Volunteer Fire & EMS Foundation."

"The county executive wants to take a global view of developing services in general as recommended in that fire study report, and that would be one of the duties of the commission," he said. "The commission in no way, shape or form is designed to create a paid fire service."

Introduced at Tuesday's council meeting, the council bill would establish an 11-member commission, six who would be fire or EMS providers and five who would be general county residents.

They would be appointed by the county executive and confirmed by the council, serve staggered three-year terms and recommend by March 1 of each year any necessary actions regarding a fire or EMS company, the allocation among the various companies and the acquisition and maintenance of apparatus.

Also subject of a public hearing before the council Tuesday was a bill to add a student member to the county's human relations commission.

Assistant county attorney Meaghan Alegi said the commission's make-up has not been updated since the 1970s, and the bill would also require the group to submit an annual report by July 1.

After a question from Councilman Dick Slutzky, Alegi said the county would look at some of the applicants to the Youth Commission, as well as the public school system and private schools for possible student members.

The student member would be a county student between 16 and 18 years old, and would serve a one-year term.

The Human Relations Commission studies the nature and causes of social friction in the community and aims to alleviate social problems and promote "equality, understanding and harmonious relations between the citizens."

Other bills approved at the meeting, which also were the subjects of public hearings earlier, included the appropriation of $1.3 million to cover expenses from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee; giving an economic development opportunity fund loan of $100,000 to Iberia Label Solutions in Jape; amending the zoning code to allow certain temporary uses for up to 45 days; appropriating $7 million to cover post-employment benefits; and entering a health care consortium with Care First to provide insurance up to $3.3 million for county government, the Harford County Board of Education and Harford Community College.

Also on Tuesday, the council approved the 2010 recycling review.

Representatives of the recycling program told council members recycling in Harford has increased by more than 35 percent since its inception.

The county has the highest recycling rate in the state, with 60 percent of residents recycling.

The county recycled 172,000 tons of material in 2010, compared with 19,000 in 1992.

Councilman Joe Woods replied: "Harford County, and the residents of Harford County, are doing a fantastic job."

Councilman Chad Shrodes also congratulated the public works officials, and said: "Our residents deserve some congratulations, but I am extremely proud of our single-stream program, and I think it's going to keep growing."

A group of parents, teachers, union representatives and other residents concerned about the school system spoke during the public comment period about the need to remediate mold problems at William Paca Elementary School specifically, as well as maintain school buildings in general.

The same presentation had been made the day before at the board of education's meeting.

Council members said at the end of the meeting the Harford County public school system holds the responsibility for those improvements.

"We certainly understand the citizens' complaint about those schools. It's been my complaint and it's been [Councilwoman] Mary Ann Lisente's complaint also," Councilman Dione Guthrie said. "We are not passing the buck at all because we have been pushing for those schools to be rebuilt."

Councilman Dick Slutzky explained: "The impact fee can only be used for capital school construction. It cannot be used for maintenance or repair or anything else."

He said the county has forward-funded more than $300 million for school needs, which is "unheard of for most neighboring counties."

Slutzky underscored the tremendous costs associated with any school construction or repair.

"We can't put up portable for $14.5 million," he said.

He also said he spoke with legal counsel this past year regarding what actions county government can take on the school system's budget.

"I believe that is not accurate, that it is in the purview of Harford County and other governments either to enhance or to cut the budget," he said. "That is a new and unique understanding of what the authorities of Harford County are."

Guthrie said upward of 1,000 people attended a job fair at Ripken Stadium held by the Susquehanna Workforce Network recently.

"These job fairs really work," he said.

Councilman Jim McMahan said the Aberdeen Alliance is collecting gently used prom dresses that will be distributed for free to girls in the community who cannot afford prom dresses.