When Ken Ulman began his second term as county executive in December 2010, he told the Howard County Times he had "zero intention of raising taxes."
Now, Ulman is asking the County Council to eliminate the county's two separate fire tax districts that have residents in the east paying a higher premium than residents in the west. If the council approves the bill, Ulman will propose a singe countywide fire tax rate when he releases his budget in April.
Though Ulman said he has not yet decided what the rate should be, it would be surprising if he did not at least set the tax at the 13.55-cent rate residents in the east have been paying per $100 of assessed property value. Residents in the west have been paying 11.55 cents per $100 of assessed value.
While residents in the east would probably appreciate a reduction in their rate, it is unlikely given the following factors: Fire tax revenues have declined in recent years, in line with lower property tax assessments; property tax intake, which accounts for half of the county's general fund revenues, are projected to remain flat for at least another few years; and the county could be hit with what Ulman is calling a $17 million "crippling blow" to his budget if the General Assembly passes the governor's teacher pension shift proposal.
Ulman has proposed an increase on the fire tax before. In 2007, he wanted to raise the rate 3 cents in the west and 1 cent in the east, but the council could only be sold on a 1-cent increase in both.
The only other time Ulman has raised taxes since he took office in 2006 was last year when he submitted a bill to the Howard County delegation, which the General Assembly subsequently passed, increasing the hotel tax from 5 percent to 7 percent to raise funds for the Howard County Tourism Council and the Howard County Economic Development Authority.
The hotel tax rate hike, Ulman said last year, does not go against his statement that he had "zero intention of raising taxes" because he was referring to "general taxes charged to Howard County citizens and property owners." He explained: "This tax is charged almost exclusively to folks who do not live here."
Fire Chief Bill Goddard admits he's looking for a "tax adjustment" to bring fire tax revenues back to "pre-recession levels."
The most likely scenario would involve a 2-cent rate increase for residents in the west. But Ulman doesn't see that as raising taxes.
"Equalizing the rate is not something I would consider to be raising taxes," he said.
Even if it were, Ulman said that his 2010 statement that he had "zero intention of raising taxes" in his second term wasn't about the fire tax.
"I was referring to property tax and income tax," he said.
But don't residents pay the fire tax as a part of their property tax bill?
"It comes as a separate line item on your property tax bill," Ulman answered.
So would it be unreasonable for a resident to believe that when you said you didn't intend to raise property taxes that also included the fire tax?
"I've answered the question," Ulman said.
However, Ulman did add: "I've heard from many, many people (in the east) who think it's absolutely unfair that they pay more."
He also noted that "if people want to pay less and get less service," they can have that conversation with the council.
Speaking of the council, Ulman said he "absolutely" expects they will be able to vote on his bill to eliminate the separate fire tax districts without knowing what countywide rate he would propose.
"What I'm asking the council to do is put the rate conservation aside because this is about the fairness," he said.
That may be asking a lot of the council members, who have always seemed to adhere to the philosophy, "The devil's in the details."