A proposal to consolidate the county's two fire tax districts and separate rates into one countywide system has support from all but one Howard fire station, a County Council hearing on the bill this week revealed.
The bill, requested by County Executive Ken Ulman, would eliminate the two-tiered system that has Howard residents who live in the rural west, outside of the county's metropolitan district that is served by public water and sewer, paying 11.55 cents per $100 of assessed property value — 2 cents less than the 13.55 cents per $100 of assessed value residents in the east pay.
A work session on the bill is scheduled for March 26 at 4:30 p.m. and a vote is scheduled for March 29 at 7 p.m. Both meetings with take place in 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 rate would have to be approved by the council.
About a dozen members of the Lisbon Volunteer Fire Department and residents they serve came to the County Council hearing Monday, March 19 to oppose the bill to consolidate the districts.
"The Department of Fire and Rescue Services and the county as a whole need to look at spending money more efficiently instead of increasing taxes," Lisbon fire department member Curtis Lowrey said. "An area of concern to me is the construction of new fire stations. ... (are they) cost effective?"
He said Lisbon, an all-volunteer station, has bought its own property on which it plans to build a new fire house and social hall, funded through money raised from the community. The original cost assessment for the project came in around $5.5 million, Lowrey said, but at the request of the community and through negotiations with contractors, they have been able to reduce the cost to $3.5 million.
Ivan Betancourt, another volunteer at the Lisbon station, also expressed opposition to the bill.
"We the citizens that provide the service are going to be hampered with a higher tax," he said.
Fire Chief Bill Goddard, joined by more than 70 representatives from other Howard fire stations, attended the hearing in support of the proposal. Only a few, including leaders of the West Friendship and Clarksville fire stations, testified.
"Over the past several years, enhancements have been made to our service area," said Mickey Day, chief of the West Friendship Volunteer Fire Department. "These include the addition of two career personal, a new fire station and the benefit of several 30,000-gallon cisterns."
The fire tax, paid through a line item on county residents' property tax bills, funds most of the Department of Fire and Rescue Services budget, which includes services from 11 stations staffed by career and volunteer fire fighters.
Because fire and rescue services are equal across the county, the fire tax rates should also be equal, Goddard argued before the council.
"This department has not and will not allow a geographical border limit the delivery of service we provide to our citizens," he said.
No hydrants in west
The division among the people from Lisbon versus the proponents who testified seems to surround a difference of opinion regarding whether or not all really is equal between the east and the rural west.
"I have no qualms with the quality of service that's provided by the fire services in the county at all," Mt. Airy resident Gary Ball said.
The difference, he said, really comes down to water supply.
"In the eastern part of the county where you're getting that better service by virtue of supplied water, you would expect to pay a little more," Ball said.
Goddard, who testified before Ball, said the water supply in the west has significantly improved recently with the addition of 11 underground water cisterns. Goddard said four more cisterns are set to be installed in the next few months and he has requested eight be funded in the fiscal 2013 budget.
Ball, however, refuted the argument that the cisterns provide the same benefit as fire hydrants do in the east.
"When my insurance company sets my rate for my homeowners insurance, they don't ask where my nearest cistern is," he said. "They ask if I have supplied water by a hydrant."
Marjorie Cissel, of Woodbine, said the lack of access to water poses more of an inequity than just higher insurance rates.
"When you don't have hydrants, it takes longer to fight a fire because firefighters have to go get water," she said.
Goddard, however, denies that water supply is still an issue. He said the fire department has commissioned a study, which is "near completion," to show insurance companies that with the addition of water tankers and cisterns in the west, the department can maintain the flow of water long enough to fight a fire.
"Results of this study will help reduce insurance premiums for all residents and businesses located near five miles of a station," he said. (Insurance companies charge higher rates for people who live more than five miles from a station.)
Some of the opponents noted that they already pay more in fire taxes than most people in the east because their property assessments are typically higher.
Lambert Cissel, Marjorie's husband, also argued against the bill, saying it's a fix to a budget problem, not an equity problem.
"The problem is in the budget," he said. "Don't rob Peter to pay Paul. Fix the budget. Tell the county executive, 'Cool it about running for governor.' Stop taking your money out of here and putting it in there."
Council member Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, asked Cissel if he thought there was a significant amount of overspending within the fire budget.
"Absolutely, positively" Cissel responded.
He added: "I'll make you a deal Mrs. Watson. You can raise (the fire tax rate) now, but when the property taxes go back up, put it in your contract, in the bill that you'll lower it back down to 11. OK? I think that's fair."
Watson said "that's certainly something to consider."