Fire tax hardly a burning need in Harford [Editorial]

Before Harford County entertains even a notion of levying a fire tax to support the local volunteer fire and ambulance service, the citizens need to have full access to the local fire company books.

During a recent meeting of a county government commission reviewing the organization of the various volunteer fire and ambulance companies that provide an important public service, the idea of levying a special tax that would be dedicated to the fire and ambulance service was broached. The logic behind it is the various community volunteer fire and ambulance companies that serve the county, at present, are allocated money by the county government, but that funding is not guaranteed. Having a dedicated fire tax would ensure a guaranteed revenue stream for the fire service, a service the county would have to pay more to provide if it had to establish a Harford County Fire Department staffed by paid emergency responders.

It's an idea that bears some discussion, though it's worth pointing out that, technically speaking, no county service is guaranteed county funding year to year. It would be difficult, politically and procedurally, for the county government to suddenly stop allocating money to schools, the sheriff's office or the department of parks and recreation, but, at least in theory, it could be done. Similarly, were the county to cease allocating money to the various volunteer fire and ambulance companies, the political fallout would be substantial and negative.

Any discussion of a fire tax, however, needs to be part of a more broad-based discussion of fire company finances and the degree to which they are subject to public scrutiny.

A little background is in order. The various volunteer fire and ambulance companies that serve Harford County are all private, not-for-profit organizations, very roughly comparable to any number of service organizations. They differ dramatically from all other service organizations, however, in that they provide the important and necessary public service of dealing with emergencies that threaten life and property.

Because they are private, historically, their finances have been closed to public scrutiny.

Because they provide a vital public service, they receive a substantial amount of public funding.

Because they receive that public funding, they are obliged to allow county officials to review their financial records each year. In recent years, county officials have been doing such reviews, but that hasn't always been the case. Even now, the county's review of fire company finances isn't made available to the general public.

The reason, as expressed by Tony Bennett, chairman of the county's committee reviewing the fire and ambulance service, is "because we recognize that it is a very tender issue within the fire service community."

In other words, the fire companies are sensitive about opening their financial records to public scrutiny.

There is a natural inclination on the part of private organizations like the fire companies to want to keep their finances private. In the case of all non-profits, however, tax returns are available for public review, though the process for securing them isn't necessarily easy.

Bennett issued assurances the fire companies are operating on the up and up, saying: "The companies are doing their fiduciary duty ... They're taking care of public funds."

In the case of the fire companies, there are financial issues at play beyond just whether public money is being appropriately managed.

Most critical is the billing authority the fire companies have over insurance companies. For many years, the fire companies have sent out requests for donations to people who had to be transported by volunteer fire company ambulances. The requests generally listed the estimated costs associated with such services, but there was no obligation to pay.

Such requests for donations still go out, but more than a decade ago the Maryland General Assembly passed a law that allowed those requests for donations to be handled as bills when they are received by insurance companies. For all but one of the local fire companies, this has resulted in a substantial amount of money coming in, thanks entirely to the work of the ambulance side of the operation. The fire companies, however, are not obliged to spend that money only on improvements to ambulance service.

(The exception to this is in Havre de Grace, which is served by a volunteer fire company, the Susquehanna Hose Company, and a volunteer ambulance service, the Havre de Grace Ambulance Corps. The Hose Company receives no insurance money for making ambulance calls and the Ambulance Corps spends any it receives on ambulance service.)

Money that comes in through ambulance bills sent to insurance companies is generally regarded as a substantial amount, though the numbers have never been publicly revealed. Before any fire tax is levied, this issue will need to be addressed in such a way as to ensure that ambulance money is spent on ambulance services. This is especially imperative because, in recent years, the volunteer fire companies have been paying crews to make sure ambulances are dispatched as quickly as possible. The county has supplemented this endeavor, but it still is reported to be running in the red.

There are other, less critical, issues of financial responsibility that need to be given a thorough public airing before any fire tax is even considered. For example, just about every fire company in the county has a 100-foot ladder truck, even as there are very few 10-story buildings in the county. If taxpayer money is paying for such equipment, someone needs to be asking if this is a wise use of money.

It may come to pass that a dedicated fire tax is needed in Harford County, but without a greater level of public financial accountability on the part of the fire companies, levying such a tax would be foolish.

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