The County Council is expected to replace the county's six fire districts with something else tonight, but nobody is quite sure what.
The one certainty is that fire tax rates for most residents will go up 2 cents to 7 cents per $100 of assessed value in the coming fiscal year, no matter how many fire districts there are in the county.
A majority of council members want one district and one fire tax rate, but they may have to settle for two districts and tax rates, which is what County Executive Charles I. Ecker proposed.
The council cannot make one fire district of the entire county unless the General Assembly agrees. No General Assembly approval is needed for two or more districts.
Council members hope to know by the start of tonight's 8 o'clock legislative session whether there are enough votes in the county's General Assembly delegation to sponsor legislation to create one fire district and one fire tax rate. If state lawmakers agree, the full General Assembly almost certainly will go along.
Mr. Ecker proposed a two-district, two-tax-rate system because he believes the current system with six districts and six tax rates is unfair.
Different rates made sense, Mr. Ecker reasons, when fire service was confined to a particular district, but many companies now respond to more calls outside their districts than inside.
Tax rates range from a low of 15 cents per $100 of assessed value in the 4th District, served by the Lisbon Volunteer Fire Company, to a high of 23 cents in the 5th District, served by the 5th District Volunteer Fire Department in Clarksville and the government-managed Banneker Road station in Columbia.
Unless the structure is changed, residents in the 5th District will be paying what the administration calls an inordinately high tax rate in the coming year to support a new Scaggsville station at Route 216 and U.S. 29. Because of its location, the station is likely to respond to more calls outside the district than inside it.
Council members agree that costs should be shared more equitably. Four of the five say the best solution is one district and one rate.
Councilman Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, however, favors the urban-rural district plan proposed by Mr. Ecker. He told his colleagues in a work session last week that he was afraid a single district would mean the end of the county's volunteer fire service.
A unified fire tax rate for the coming year would amount to about 22 cents per $100 of assessed value, Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget administrator, told the council last week.
That is 2 cents to 7 cents more than the rate now paid by Elkridge, Ellicott City, Lisbon, Savage, West Friendship and most Columbia residents. It is a penny less than the rate paid by residents in Clarksville and the remainder of Columbia.
In other action tonight, the council is expected to tighten the criteria for admission to the county's farmland preservation program and set a maximum price of $6,600 an acre for the best properties coming into the program.
Councilman Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, wants to amend the administration's proposal to allow owners of large properties within the county water and sewer district to be eligible for admission to the program. Rural acres are the only properties considered now.
The council is also expected tonight to table the administration's plan to replace the county Economic Development Department with a privately run Economic Development Authority. The General Assembly must approve such a change, and the council wants to wait until after the General Assembly has voted.
The Economic Development Authority legislation is part of a proposed reorganization package that would return the agricultural land preservation program to the Department of Planning and Zoning, transfer the central services office to the general services department, move the animal control agency to the Police Department, and put employment and training operations under the control of the county administrator.