Higher fire tax looking likely


An increase in Howard County's fire property tax seemed more likely yesterday as County Executive James N. Robey individually briefed County Council members on the budget he is to present formally today.

"I need the ability to raise additional funds for the fire department," Robey said about a bill before the council that would lift the ceiling on the fire tax.

He had asked that the ceiling be eliminated, but amended the bill to raise the maximum tax 4.4 cents per $100 of assessed value.

That measure and bills intended to discourage teen-age smoking and naming a commission to help redraw County Council districts were the subject of a public hearing last night.

Although Robey refused yesterday to say he wants to increase the fire tax rate, his contention that he wants the option to do so was wearing thin the day before his announcement, when the major decisions have been made.

And the decision to ask for a specific increase in the tax ceiling made the impression even clearer for some.

"You have to assume it's going to be close to it [the new ceiling]," said Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, though Raymond S. Wacks, the budget director, suggested that the new ceiling is intended to see the administration through two budget years.

"If you're going to set the cap, set it at a level for two years," Wacks said.

Increasing the cap rather than eliminating it was a move to satisfy the council's two Republicans, who didn't want to remove the ceiling, officials said.

"This was a compromise," Robey said.

As the minutes ticked off toward last night's deadline for filing personal income taxes, council members thought about whether to approve Robey's request. Unlike most area counties, Howard uses a separate property tax to pay for fire and rescue services. The county is divided into two zones, with residents of the populous eastern county paying 10.8 cents per $100, and western county residents paying 2 cents less. The general county property tax rate, which supports the rest of county government, is $1.044 per $100 of assessed value.

Budget officials predicted that revenues that could be raised with the current tax rate would fall $4.7 million short of fire department requests for next year, which also may be cut. Each penny added to the property tax would bring in about $2 million, and would cost homeowners an extra $10.44 per $100,000 worth of house.

The smoking-ban enforcement bill appears to have wide support, starting with the Smoke Free Howard County Coalition, an umbrella group of anti-smoking activists and Health Department officials.

Mark Breaux, president of the coalition, said the bill "underscores the fact that tobacco and tobacco use, above all things, is a health issue."

Carole Conors, president of the Howard League of Women Voters, also supported the bill because it is attempting "to do something that works" to discourage teen-agers from tobacco addiction, she testified last night at the hearing.

Bruce C. Bereano, a lobbyist for tobacco wholesalers, told the County Council that local governments have no authority to pass laws affecting tobacco sales, which he said is an issue for the General Assembly.

Bereano also said that citing businesses for illegal sales is not fair. "You pop a couple of kids, and you have far more effect than popping a couple of stores," he said.

The bill proposes using state money from the tobacco industry suit settlement to hire a civilian, Health Department inspector to enforce laws against sales of tobacco products to children younger than 18. County police are responsible for enforcing anti-smoking laws, which are criminal violations. Robey, a former police chief, said that is not working well.

The big difference is that under Robey's proposed bill, the inspector would issue civil citations for escalating fines ranging from $50 to $1,000 for violations, and smoking enforcement would be the inspector's main job.

Robey said police have little time to enforce smoking-sales laws, and lodging criminal charges against store owners is the wrong way to discourage smoking by young people. His bill proposes a series of graduated fines, and closely follows a bill introduced in the 2000 General Assembly by Sen. Martin G. Madden, a Howard County Republican. Robey opposed that bill, which died, because of the cost of hiring a county inspector. The tobacco lawsuit money was not available then.

Members of a county redistricting advisory commission are expected to be confirmed when all the bills are voted on May 7.

The seven-member citizens commission is to recommend new boundaries for the five County Council districts by October, based on the new federal census.

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