Questions and comments at a work session this week indicated the County Council likely will approve merging the county's two fire tax districts into one countywide system, with one rate.
"I, for one, can't understand why my constituents should continue to pay more for the same level of service," said Columbia Democrat Jen Terrasa, who represents the southeast part of the county where the fire tax rate is higher than in the rural west. "I'm having a hard time understanding why we wouldn't just move this forward."
The council's other three Democrats — chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, of Columbia, Calvin Ball, of Columbia, and Courtney Watson, of Ellicott City — also indicated support for a bill, requested by County Executive Ken Ulman and Fire Chief Bill Goddard, that would eliminate the separate rural and metropolitan fire tax districts.
The two-tiered system currently has Howard residents who live in the rural west, outside of the county's metropolitan district served by public water and sewer, paying 11.55 cents per $100 of assessed property value — 2 cents less than the 13.55 cents per $100 rate that residents in the east pay.
The council is scheduled to vote on the bill Thursday, March 29 at 7:30 p.m.
If the council passes the bill, Ulman will propose a single countywide fire tax rate when he releases his fiscal year 2013 budget in April. The proposed rate would have to be approved by the council.
Council member Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, said he plans to vote against the bill.
The council five years ago rejected Ulman's request for a single fire tax rate. At the time, Fox agreed that if things were eventually made equal between the east and the west from an insurance standpoint he could support a single rate.
The insurance inequities have not changed since then, Fox said, noting many people in the west still pay a higher premium for fire-damage coverage because they do not have access to fire hydrants, and/or do not live within five miles of a fire station.
The Department of Fire and Rescue Services has commissioned a study to show insurance companies that with the addition of water tankers and cisterns in the west, it can maintain the flow of water long enough to fight a fire. Goddard said he's confident the results of the study, which he hopes will be released in time for the opening of a new fire station in Glenwood in a few months, will be "very good news for citizens out in the rural area."
Fox, however, is still not convinced.
"For me, the decision is being made prematurely," he said at the March 26 hearing.
Improved service in west?
Watson said the county is providing a higher level of the service in the west than in the past. She also noted that the opening of the Glenwood station will decrease insurance rates for some residents who live within five miles of it.
"This (bill) does seem to make sense to me from a philosophical standpoint," Watson said.
Ball did not comment during the work session but the former Howard County firefighter prompted Goddard to respond to opponents' arguments that lack of hydrants in the west create an inequality with the east and to point out how much of the department's work actually involves fighting fires.
The national average, Goddard said, shows that ratio of Emergency Medical Service calls to fire calls is 70 percent to 30 percent.
"Ours is just a little bit higher," he said. "This is not about fire. ... This is about EMS."
Regarding the hydrant issue, Goddard said the proximity to a hydrant "does not have a direct relationship on the outcome of a fire. It's simply a myth."
He also noted that "while those in the east do have an improved water system, it's a system they pay for" through water and sewer fees.
After the work session, Ball said: "If the argument is about level of service and there is an equal level of service, it's difficult to make a case why there shouldn't be an equal tax rate."
Asked if he believes there is an equal level of service, Ball said "there is a strong case that there is."
During the work session, Fox pointed out the varying definitions of equality of service and said: "Therein lies one of the issues."
Responding to Fox's comment, Sigaty said: "Perhaps one you and I will never resolve."
Asked after the work session where she stands on the bill, Sigaty said her comments to Fox show how she feels.