Republican Greg Fox's goal was clear yesterday as the new Howard County Council held its first budget review - find a way to eliminate an increase in the fire property tax proposed by County Executive Ken Ulman.
In theory, that might not seem too difficult. Just find $7.7 million to cut from other capital projects in the $354 million budget to pay for the fire service improvements Fox wants and that the tax revenue would provide.
The tough part for Fox might be attracting two more votes from the council's four Democrats. Still, yesterday's meeting in the George Howard Building was merely the first in a monthlong process, and other council members said they are keeping their minds open.
"Howard County doesn't have to pay the fire tax" increase, Fox said after the session.
Howard's fire tax is a separate property tax of 10.55 cents per $100 of assessed value for western county residents not served by public water lines, and 12.55 cents for eastern county residents who have piped water and a higher level of service. The proposed increase would create one countywide rate of 13.55 cents.
Ulman said the projects the money would help pay for should reduce fire insurance rates for western county residents, compensating for the tax increase. The higher tax rates should produce $4.4 million, budget officials said, though an additional $3.3 million in surplus fire tax funds are included in the capital budget for Fire Department projects.
Until now, all revenue from the tax have been used to pay fire department operating costs and not for capital projects such as new firetrucks or stations.
Ulman included $7.7 million in his capital proposal for fire service to pay for things including a $1 million ladder truck, several new tankers, $1.7 million for the first stage of a program to begin burying 30,000-gallon water tanks throughout the western county and $2.1 million to help pay for new or enlarged fire stations.
Fox said he favors those projects but questioned why the tax increase is needed to pay for them in light of other choices Ulman has made.
One of those choices was to delay until fiscal 2009 the $18.9 million intended to begin renovations to Mount Hebron High School, a move made because the school board is studying whether to renovate or replace the Ellicott City school.
Another was Ulman's inclusion of $16.6 million as a down payment on a plan to redevelop the county government complex in Ellicott City. The county executive has said he has no specific plan for that money but felt the need to include it as a placeholder for a long-delayed project.
In addition, Ulman included $1.9 million to plan a new Ellicott City library building, but the council learned yesterday that the county does not own the 10-acre site for the proposed 82,000-square-foot building.
"These [fire] projects could have been easily funded with the $18 million [for Mount Hebron] being pulled out," Fox said.
Under questioning by council members, county Fire Chief Joseph A. Herr said the $1.7 million would pay for about 10 water tanks. His goal is to install up to 40 underground tanks.