It's back to the drawing board on revamping Howard County's unusual tax system for financing fire and rescue services - but this year, the county's state legislators won't be involved.
County Executive James N. Robey said he won't again ask the General Assembly delegation to consider merging the county's two fire tax districts. Instead, he will put the fire tax into the county budget's general fund or do nothing.
Although doing nothing is a short-term option, Robey said he is inclined to make a change as part of his budget proposal next spring.
"It's got to happen sooner or later," Robey said. "We can't keep subsidizing fire and rescue services out of the general fund."
It's a ticklish issue because western county residents pay a lower tax than eastern county residents.
Creating a unified tax rate means rural residents would see their taxes go up. Robey wants to find a long-term way to finance fire services - including a new western county station - without constantly having to raise the now-separate fire property tax.
Legislators had mixed feelings about the decision not to ask the delegation to merge the two tax districts, as well as the idea itself.
Del. Elizabeth Bobo, chairwoman of the county House delegation, said she would have introduced a bill for Robey but "he would have had a fair amount of convincing to do with me."
State Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, Senate delegation chairman, said Robey never talked to him about it.
Western county residents - those who live beyond the reach of public water and sewer lines - pay 22 cents per $100 of assessed value on their property for fire services.
Eastern county residents pay 27 cents. That produced $27 million for fire and rescue services this budget year to finance about 300 paid firefighters in 11 stations. There are also 200 volunteers.
But county law allows only one more small increase in the rate, which would produce another $900,000 next year, said Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director. After that, the county would either have to raise the rate ceiling or use general fund money. Robey raised the rate 3 cents in his first budget.
"The issue comes down to staffing," Wacks said.
"Are we going to build another [fire] station?"
The county has plans to build a fire station in Glenwood, in the rural west, and has been hiring people to reduce the firefighters' workweek. This year, 15 have been hired.
But County Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican, said he's not sure a new fire station is needed and that his constituents feel they should pay less in fire taxes.
If the fire tax became part of the general property tax, everyone would pay the same rate, boosting the burden for western county residents without necessarily boosting the services they receive.
"They're happy with the fire services they have," he said.
"Their concern is that they pay higher homeowners insurance on their homes because they have no water and sewer."
The council's other Republican, Ellicott City councilman Christopher J. Merdon, said he favors a single property tax, however.
Kittleman said the county could build a medical rescue station at Glenwood and not a full fire station.
Robey said he's re-evaluating the need for the Glenwood station, though last year he supported building it.
"I want to see the justification for it. I have an informal request from West Friendship [volunteers] to build a new station in a different location.
"That may take care of the need for both stations."
One of Robey's worries about merging the fire tax with the general property tax - creating the perception that taxes are going up - may be lessened this year because of a one-time change in the state's property-assessment system.
Instead of assessing homes at 40 percent of their value, the state will begin using a 100-percent assessment value this year.
To keep residents' tax bills the same, however, county tax rates will drop dramatically to compensate.
So instead of a $2.61 property tax rate increasing to $2.88, Howard County would have a rate of $1.044 per $100 of assessed value, increasing to $1.152 if the fire and general taxes are merged.
The tax bills would remain the same, except in the western part of the county, but the rate would appear lower.
Council Chairwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, said, "What I fear is that we will get to a point where we'll be in crisis management. Then we'll do something."
Robey seemed mindful of that.
"I'm just going to have to bite the bullet," Robey said. "It's just the right thing to do."