Arguing that "the eastern area of the county has been subsidizing the west," Howard County Executive Ken Ulman is proposing to eliminate the system that has rural residents paying a lower fire tax rate.
It is a move that will inevitably lead to rate change for at least one side of the county.
"I don't think people who live in the western end of the county expect to have less fire protection and emergency medical services," Ulman said. "We don't charge different rates for police services or library services or park services."
The County Council is scheduled to introduce Ulman's bill — which eliminates the two-district tax system — on Monday, March 5. A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for March 19, with a vote scheduled on March 29. All meetings will be held at 7:30 p.m. at the George Howard Building, in Ellicott City.
If the bill is approved, Ulman will propose a single countywide fire tax rate when he releases his fiscal year 2013 budget in April. The proposed ratewould have to be approved by the council.
While Ulman said he has not yet decided on a proposed countywide rate, the proposal comes at a time when the county Department of Fire and Rescue Services is facing between a $15 million and $20 million deficit, according to Chief Bill Goddard.
"While one could say it's a tax increase, I call it a tax adjustment," Goddard said.
The fire tax, paid through a line item on county residents' property tax bills, funds most of the fire department's budget, which includes services from 11 stations staffed by career and volunteer fire fighters.
County residents who live in the rural west, outside of the county's metropolitan district that is served by public water and sewer, pay 11.55 cents per $100 of assessed property value. Residents in the east pay 2 cents more at 13.55 cents per $100 of assessed value. For example, a home assessed at $400,000 would cost an owner in the east $542 in fire taxes — $80 more than the $462 a homeowner in the west would pay.
The fire tax rates have remained unchanged since 2007, when the council approved a one-cent increase to the rates in both the rural and metropolitan districts. That year, Ulman proposed raising the tax by 3 cents in the west and 1 cent in the east so the rates would be equal. The council shot that down and instead approved the one-cent increase in both districts and took $1.6 million from a fire department contingency fund to help pay for the expenses Ulman was looking to fund with the tax increase.
Though the fire tax rates have been the same for five years, revenues have declined in the past three years — from $68.7 million in fiscal 2010 to $62.0 million in fiscal 2012 — as the recession brought declines in property value assessments.
"While our revenue has been dropping off over the last few years, certainly our expenditures have been steady," Goddard said. "Really, what I'm shooting for in the short-term is to get us back to pre-recession rates."
Council wants details
Goddard and Ulman noted a countywide fire tax rate would not be finalized until after the County Council decides whether or not to approve the consolidation of the two tax districts.
"We'll have a discussion about what the rates will be in the context of the budget," Ulman said.
Council members Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, and Jen Terrasa and Calvin Ball, both Columbia Democrats, said they would need to take a closer look at the details of Ulman's proposal before making any decisions.
"Probably one fire district makes sense," Watson said.
Council member Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, said he has not set on any particular approach, but he does have a number of concerns about Ulman's proposal. One is the real reason behind the need to consolidate the districts.
"The proposal is more than just we're unifying them," Fox said. "The proposal is that they're looking for more money because the surplus is gone."
The fire contingency fund had $10.2 million at the start of fiscal 2012, down from $11.2 million in fiscal 2010.