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Fire tax increase attracts sparse response at hearing

The fire tax rate increase County Executive Ken Ulman is proposing for fiscal year 2013 may be significant but the crowd that came before the County Council Monday to talk about it was not.

Only six people — two in support and four in opposition — testified about the fire tax increase at the council's April 30 budget hearing.

The 20-some other people who testified at the hearing spoke on behalf of various nonprofit organizations that receive funding through the county's community service grants program.

The grants program is slated to be funded at $5.6 million for fiscal 2013. Representatives from the Howard County Arts Council, Foreign Born Immigration Network, Community Action Council, Howard County Tourism and the Domestic Violence Center, among other nonprofit organizations, pleaded with the council not to cut their allocation.

Ulman is proposing a new countywide fire tax rate of 17.6 cents per $100 of assessed property value, a 52 percent increase for residents of the rural west and a 30 percent increase for those in the east.

One of the two fire tax proponents was Ellicott City resident John Drago, whose two teenage sons were injured in February after their vehicle collided with a school bus on Route 40.

"Within minutes, the Howard County first responders scooped up my sons; they were medevaced to shock trauma," he said.

Drago said his sons, as well as the other passenger who was in the vehicle, "are doing very, very well" and that would not have been possible without Howard County Fire and Rescue.

The other proponent was Howard County firefighter and paramedic Veronika Conner, who works at Fire Station 2 in Ellicott City.

"There is only one full-time ambulance operating out of Station 2, and it's always busy," she said, advocating for the nine firefighter positions slated to be funded with money from the fire tax increase, who would staff a new paramedic unit for the station.

In an emergency, Conner explained, the ambulance is typically out of service to other calls for as long as two hours, which means the next closest station with an available unit has to respond.

"This puts the citizens of Ellicott City at a distinct disadvantage," she said.

Opponents saw the fire tax differently.

Highland resident Deleah Proffen said she understands the need for a rate increase, but what Ulman is proposing is drastic.

"The fire tax increase as proposed would truly be a heavy burden for us," she said.

Woodbine resident Marge Cissel said she "was completely shocked" by how high of a rate increase the county is proposing. She said the county can maintain the good fire service it has now without raising the tax, noting Lisbon fire station's fundraising efforts as an example.

Kenny Livesay, a volunteer at the Lisbon station, refuted the county's argument that the rate should be raised because property assessments, and therefore fire tax revenues, have declined.

"Assessments went down and therefore cash in taxpayers' hands went down," he said, asking the council members where they suggest residents should make cuts to make up for the fire tax increase.

Bernard Noppinger, of Ellicott City, said he understands the increase would be good for the fire department, but "there has to be a limit for what's good for the constituent."

He added: "I don't know why this whole council (chamber) isn't full."

Ulman and other county officials have argued that the increase is needed to make up for the sharp decline in property values in the past few years, and that the increased rate will have most property owners paying about the same in fire taxes as they were before the real estate market collapsed.

he administration has also argued that the revenue is needed to fund 32 firefighter positions at the Glenwood station that will open this year and the positions for the new paramedic unit in Ellicott City.

The council is holding a work session on the fire tax, as well as other parts of the proposed public safety budget, on May 2 at 8:30 a.m. A work session on the community services budget will be held May 10 at 9:30 a.m., followed by a second public hearing on the operating budget at 11 a.m. A public hearing on budgets for the school system, community college and library system will be held May 12 at 9 a.m.

All meetings will take place in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

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