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Consolidation of Howard fire tax districts proposed — again

Rural western, developed eastern sides would pay the same under county exec's plan

By Andrea F. Siegel and Jessica Anderson, The Baltimore Sun

11:36 PM EST, February 23, 2012

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The Howard County Council is being asked to take a fresh look at an old — and much-debated — tax issue.

A bill prefiled at the request of County Executive Ken Ulman seeks to end the two-tiered fire tax and replace it with a single countywide rate. Howard is the only Maryland county to have two tax rates to fund fire service, Ulman said, and most counties don't levy a separate tax for fire and rescue services, funding them through general revenues.

The bill will be formally introduced to the County Council at a legislative session March 5, with a public hearing scheduled for March 19.

Ulman said he hopes the measure will be adopted quickly so that it can be part of planning for the next fiscal year's budget.

The more densely developed eastern side of the county pays a higher rate than the more rural western side. Since 1993, several proposals have been made to simplify the tax rates. Only one, which reduced the number of districts from six to two, succeeded.

What a countywide fire tax rate might amount to is unclear. The fire tax bill is on top of other county taxes.

"There will be a conversation about rates later, in the context of the budget," Ulman said.

His effort comes at the same time that the county firefighters union president has warned that the fire tax funds are decreasing. During a hearing before the county delegation last week, Rich Ruehl said cuts to service might have to be made.

The fire tax is tied to property assessments that have shrunk in the troubled economy.

Figures supplied by the county show that in 2010, the county collected $68.9 million from the fire tax. But in 2011, the county collected about $66.3 million. In the current tax year, that has fallen to just under $62 million.

The current fire tax rate is 13.55 cents for $100 assessed property value for the more densely developed eastern part of the county and 2 cents lower in the more rural western area.

In a prepared statement, Fire Chief William Goddard urged support for the consolidation.

The bill was submitted Thursday at the request of Ulman, who noted that the recommendation for a single fire tax rate goes back at least to the early 1990s — along with disputes over it.

"I am willing to take that on, and I think too often we have pushed that off for political expediency," Ulman said. He acknowledged that it might take work to convince some residents that it's time for a single rate.

He said he knows that many western county residents said it was appropriate for them to pay less because they were getting reduced fire service. People living in the eastern area groused that they were subsidizing the emergency service for the rural part of the county.

But the standards for service have changed and the county has made improvements for western county dwellers — and that's why this is a good time to create a single rate, Ulman said.

"We have the same response time expectation for every area of the county," Ulman said.

New resources in the western area include the Glenwood station — expected to open in several months — and 14 recently installed cisterns to supply additional water so that firefighters aren't looking for ponds to refill tankers.

Ultimately, 94 such cisterns would dot that area, Ulman said. And there are long-range plans for other upgrades in both fire tax districts, which officials hope will plug the "holes" where longer response times drag down the county average. The goal average is six minutes, he said.

"We are not two separate counties. We are one county," Ulman said.

Consolidation of fire districts has been an issue for at least two decades.

In 1993, the proposal to have one fire tax district was rejected. However, the County Council under Executive Charles I. Ecker reduced the county's six fire tax districts to two.

In 1999, County Executive James N. Robey suggested merging the two fire districts into one to help pay for growth, but that went nowhere. Western county residents and politicians did not want to pay a higher fire tax.

Now, Ulman said, the fire and rescue tax should be equal across the county.

"We have one tax rate for police services and education and libraries and other services," he said, adding that he saw no reason that fire and rescue should be different.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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