Fire Chief Christine Uhlhorn stands outside the George Howard Building in 2018.
Fire Chief Christine Uhlhorn stands outside the George Howard Building in 2018. (Baltimore Sun Media Group file)

As a third-generation firefighter, it was the honor of my lifetime to be named the Howard County fire chief last year. The brave men and women in our Department of Fire and Rescue Services inspire me every day, as they put their lives on the line for the people of Howard County. I am so proud to serve by keeping our exceptional community safe.

But our fire department has reached a breaking point.

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Without changing course, we will not be able to afford the 21st-century fire department Howard County needs. Our Fire Fund has gone underfunded for too long and now the problem demands urgent leadership to invest in our public safety.

Thankfully, County Executive Calvin Ball has proposed a 6-cent increase to the fire and rescue tax in his proposed budget. This modest increase is absolutely the right call. It’s not the politically convenient move, but this 6-cent increase will save lives.

Since 2013, the population of Howard County has grown by over 17,000, but the fire and rescue tax rate has not increased one cent. As a result, our Fire Fund has a structural deficit and our fund balance will have a $7 million deficit by the end of fiscal 2020, even before factoring in additional needs in the recent budget, like new stations. By fiscal 2025, that number would balloon to $158 million.

Howard County Executive Ball proposes $1.7 billion budget, recommends raising fire and rescue tax

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball has presented a $1.7 billion operating budget for fiscal 2020, a 3% increase from last year.

At the same time, our public safety needs continue to grow. A larger population demands more firefighters, more paramedics and faster response time. Since the last fire and rescue tax increase, we have seen an average of 1,000 more incidents each year, with no sign of slowing down. From 2013 to 2018, our incident growth outpaced Howard County’s population growth by 11.5%. This, specifically, comes from the growing aging population as well as the county’s job growth, which is projected to continue to increase by 30,000 jobs by 2025.

Howard County is becoming a destination community. In the next decade, 55% of the projected growth will occur in downtown Columbia and along the Route 1 corridor. Therefore, we are set to open, equip and staff the Merriweather and Waterloo stations, plus we have a North Columbia station coming soon. We have already opened and staffed the Glenwood station and added support to West Friendship and the Lisbon station. As our county grows, so must our Department of Fire and Rescue Services.

The discussion around county budgets and deficits can often feel abstract, but in the case of increasing the fire and rescue tax in the most effective and efficient way possible, with the utmost respect for every dollar allocated, it is literally life and death. I can promise that my team at fire and rescue will do everything we can to protect and serve Howard County. I hope we will have your support to make it possible.

The writer is the chief of Howard County’s Department of Fire and Rescue Services.

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