BERLIN - Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend chose the friendly confines of an Eastern Shore fire hall yesterday to announce the first spending initiative in her bid to be governor - a $20 million revolving loan fund for Maryland's 365 volunteer fire companies.
The fund, which has languished at $1 million since it was created two years ago, would get a $5 million boost beginning in 2004, Townsend said, and would grow by $5 million a year until it reached $20 million. She said the program fits nicely with her campaign theme of linking state government with communities and local volunteers.
"I've worked for years with volunteer fire companies. This is an extension of that," she said.
But a spokesman for Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said Townsend's pledge lacks credibility because the administration, as part of its efforts to balance the budget this year, proposed taking $5 million from a reserve fund set aside for emergency medical services. That fund gives grants to local fire departments to purchase equipment.
"Three months ago, they wanted to come in and deplete the funds for emergency medical services, and now they want to give more money," said Paul Schurick, a spokesman for the expected Republican gubernatorial nominee. "Why should anyone believe this? This is deeply disingenuous politics."
The Townsend campaign responded that the budget transfer - which was rejected by legislators - would have come from a surplus reserve fund not expected to be needed for as many as 15 years.
"Not one of those dollars was coming from a volunteer fire company," said Michael Morrill, a Townsend campaign spokesman. "The only credibility at stake is their credibility because they have offered no ideas to help the volunteer firefighters."
Townsend has pledged a vigorous effort in rural areas outside her Baltimore-Washington base. She shrugged off questions about her ability to sway voters in conservative areas who rejected her and Gov. Parris N. Glendening in the last two elections.
"I believe Maryland is a state full of small communities. Government works best when it harnesses the energies of those communities," she said.
Local Democrats say a respectable showing on the Lower Shore by the Glendening-Townsend ticket four years ago - 45 percent of the vote in Worcester County and 43 percent in Wicomico - is cause for hope in the fall.
"Kathleen is a different person as a campaigner than Glendening," said Del. Bennett Bozman, a Worcester Democrat. "She's more people-oriented, a compassionate person. I think people really respond to her."
Speaking to about 150 elected officials and firefighters, Townsend noted that her loan fund proposal comes at a time of heightened awareness of the risk volunteers take - risks that were evident in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington and in the aftermath of the April 28 tornado that devastated LaPlata in Southern Maryland.
"In most parts of the state, volunteers are the first responders to almost any emergency," she said. "Our commitment should reflect their extraordinary courage that is so vital."
Ocean City Fire Chief Roger A. Steger, a past president of the state firemen's association, said a recent purchase by his department illustrates the financial burden many volunteer companies take on.
"The average pumper truck costs $200,000 to $300,000, and we just spent $578,000 for a 95-foot tower truck," Steger said. "We have 35,000 members statewide, we have an office in Annapolis and it's taken us two years to get this fund going."
In a move that surprised local Democrats and fire officials, Townsend said the fund would be named for Del. Norman H. Conway. The Salisbury Democrat has worked for years to open state coffers to financially strapped volunteer companies.
Conway recalled recent efforts to increase funding for the loan program, including a tax amnesty plan that generated $39.8 million - money that was quickly spent to ease a shortage in mental health funding.
Conway, a 40-year volunteer at the Salisbury Fire Department's Station 2, failed this year to win General Assembly approval for a tire recycling fee he says would have generated $3.5 million to $4 million annually.
"Our schools, churches and firehouses are the cornerstones of small communities in rural Maryland," he said. "There's a tremendous need to help our volunteers."
According to a 2-year-old survey by the firemen's association, expenses will continue to outstrip state funding, even with the loan fund increase.
"This is overwhelming, considering the amount that's been available in the past," said Gene Worthington, a member of the Level Volunteer Fire Department in Harford County and the association's vice president. "We surveyed our members statewide, and they need $80 million."
Sun staff writer Howard Libit contributed to this article.