In addition to the declining fire tax revenues, part of the reason the surplus has been depleted, Fox said, is that when Ulman took office he started using the fire tax operating funds to pay for capital expenses.

"It was a way for Ken to start balancing the general fund budget," Fox said.

County spokesman Kevin Enright denied that accusation. He said the fire tax funds were used to replace bonds, not general funds.

In opposing Ulman's proposal to equalize the rates in 2007, Fox had said that he wasn't convinced the level of service in the west matched the level of service in the east. Though he recognizes things have improved since then, he said some inequalities still exist.

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For example, he noted insurance companies charge more to cover people who live further away from a fire station and water source. Also, in the west, where the population density is far lower than in the east, some people are paying higher insurance premiums. Fox said a possible compromise would be to equalize the rate but provide a tax credit for people who still face inequalities from an insurance standpoint.

Council chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Columbia Democrat, could not be reached for comment.

'No difference' in service

The county fire tax was established in 1955 with six separate tax districts, one for each volunteer fire company in the county. The county did not start hiring full-time firefighters until the 1970s.

In 1993, the county switched to two districts, with the end of the public water and sewer service area serving as the division.

With increases to fire services provided in the western part of the county in recent years, Ulman said he believes the time is right to finally end the district system and require residents to contribute at the same rate.

Previous attempts to eliminate the district system have failed, but Ulman and Goddard said there have been several changes to equalize services since then. They said the average emergency response time is six minutes in every area of the county.

Ulman and Goddard also noted several improvements that have been made in the western part of the county in the past few years: the Glenwood fire station that is expected to open later this year; the relocation of the West Friendship fire station; and the 14 underground water cisterns that have been added to improve the water supply in the west.

Goddard said "there's no difference" in the level or quality of fire and rescue services provided across the county and that rescue teams often cross district lines.

Though Goddard said he never hesitates to provide firefighters where they are needed, it can create an "administrative nightmare" because he has to do separate accounting for the two districts.

"I have a set of books for the rural side, and I have a set of books for the metro side," he said. "It's a system that is long overdue for some overhaul."