Council votes 4-1 to eliminate separate fire tax districts, rates

In a 4-1 vote Thursday, the County Council passed a bill to eliminate the two separate fire tax districts that have residents in the east paying a higher rate than residents in the more rural west.

"I think we should all be paying the same rate since we're receiving the same service," council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Columbia Democrat, said.

The bill was requested by County Executive Ken Ulman, who will propose a single countywide fire tax rate when he releases his fiscal year 2013 budget by April 21. The proposed rate would have to be approved by the council.

Council members said they have not heard any discussion about what the countywide rate should be and will withhold opinions until they see what Ulman proposes.

"I'm going to be looking for very solid documentation and rationale for the rate, so it is enough to fund our fire and rescue services but not more than we need," Ellicott City Democrat Courtney Watson said.

The two-tiered system currently has Howard residents who live in the rural west, outside of the county's metropolitan district 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 rate that residents in the east pay.

In voting against the bill, council member Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, said he was not convinced that a change is warranted at this time.

"There are so many ways to look at this issue, and everyone has valid arguments," he said. "I only wish that this decision came after we had received the (study on water resources in the west the county fire department is conducting) and after more discussion within the community."

Fox added: "I also ask that as these extra dollars come into the system, that the rural west receives these dollars for their needs and not take for granted the vast volunteer hours and community donations that substantially reduces the average cost for running these volunteer stations."

The argument that stations in the west tend to have more volunteer hours and more money coming in from community donors was presented by the Lisbon Fire Department, the only fire station in the county to oppose the bill, at an earlier hearing on the proposal.

Representatives from the fire station and others in western Howard also noted they already pay more in taxes, because property assessments in the west typically are higher than in the east, and also pay more in homeowners insurance, because they have less access to fire hydrants.

The main proponent of the bill was Department of Fire and Rescue Services Chief Bill Goddard, who had argued that the two-tiered system was antiquated, as the department has improved enough over the years to provide everyone in the county with the same level of service.

"It's a good day for the department," he said after the vote. "We finally put to rest an issue that's been debated since 1992."

Regarding the rate, Goddard said Ulman and budget and finance officials will look at his departmental budget request and decide what's needed.

As Ulman has requested, Goddard said has been going through his budget "with a fine-toothed comb" and will only ask for items the department can "adequately justify."

However, he added, "the sad reality" is the department's revenue from fire taxes has decreased in past years because of property values having gone down, and the department is running out of room to make cuts.

"We've squeezed the orange as hard as we could and then we squeezed the apple," Goddard said. "We're at a point where there's no juice left in either."

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