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Delegation to introduce bill to merge fire districts, charge single tax rate


Howard County took a step closer yesterday to a uniform fire tax rate.

The county's legislative delegation will introduce a bill to the General Assembly that would allow the county to charge a single rate and merge all six of its fire districts into one.

"There's a very wide disparity in the rates," county budget Administrator Raymond S. Wacks told the delegation during a meeting yesterday in Annapolis. "It's a matter of tax equity."

Mr. Wacks said the rate would probably be between 22 and 25 cents per $100 of assessed value. Although people receive essentially the same service now, the rates vary from 15 to 23 cents per $100.

Del. Robert Flanagan, R-14B, called the current tax structure "a totally irrational system that could be attacked on constitutional grounds and legal grounds."

The county administration asked for the bill because the county NTC cannot legally consolidate the districts into one without state legislation. The delegation conditionally supported the bill yesterday, pending the outcome of a public hearing on the matter scheduled for March 25.

Yesterday's events were the latest in a journey to revise a decades-old tax system that has fallen out of kilter.

In the 1950s, then-rural Howard County was divided into six districts, handled by volunteer firefighters. Homeowners in each district paid a rate based on the needs of the firehouse in their section of the county.

As the county developed, however, some departments were required to respond to more and more fires in other districts because they were closer.

"Fire companies were going back and forth to other districts all the time," Mr. Wacks said.

Today, the rates in each district -- which are set by the county council -- bear little resemblance to the actual costs of running the local fire departments, Mr. Wacks told the delegation.

For instance, property owners in Elkridge pay 17 cents per $100 of assessed value, while property owners in Savage pay 20 cents per $100. "People in Savage are subsidizing fire service in Elkridge," Mr. Wacks told the legislators.

The county has decided to try to fix the system now to find a fair way to pay for a planned firehouse in Scaggsville that will cost $1.3 million a year to operate.

The proposed system had angered some of the county's volunteer firefighters earlier, because it would have required each company to ask the county for a grant to cover operating and capital expenses. Volunteer firefighters complained that the county was stripping them of control of their budgets.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker withdrew that proposal last week. He has said he will work with the volunteers to come up with a more acceptable allocation system.

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