If Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services Chief Bill Goddard got everything he asked for in his budget, the hike in the county's fire tax would be even higher than what has been proposed.
"I asked for more; I did," Goddard told the County Council Wednesday during the first of several operating budget work sessions.
Goddard said he had requested more funding for the fire department than County Executive Ken Ulman was willing to approve. Most of the additional funding Goddard requested would have paid for an additional fire fighter on each engine.
The majority of county engines are staffed with three fire fighters, which means at least two engines have to arrive to a fire before firefighters can go in. A national safety rule requires at least two firefighters to go into a burning building and at least two to be outside.
Ulman's fiscal 2013 operating budget proposal does not fund the fourth fire fighter for each engine but includes a total of $99.5 million for the fire department, most of which is funded through revenue from the fire tax.
The department's budget includes 41 new positions to staff the Glenwood station that will open this year and a new paramedic unit for the Ellicott City fire station. To pay for those positions, as well as make up for losses in fire tax revenue because of declining property values, Ulman has proposed to increase the fire tax rate to 17.6 cents per $100 of assessed value.
Residents in the rural west have been paying $11.55 cents per $100 of assessed value and residents in the east have been paying $13.55 cents per $100 of assessed value.
Goddard said if his full request had been funded, the tax would have needed to be raised to about 20 cents per $100 of assessed value. But the county is still facing tough times, he said, noting "the executive has made it very clear that I'm not going to get my wish list."
At the work session, council members questioned Goddard and county budget administrator Ray Wacks about how the administration arrived at the 17.6 cents rate.
Because fire tax revenue is based on property values, and assessments have been on the decline for the past four years, Wacks explained that the county has been using the fire department's fund balance — surplus from years in which assessments were on the rise and more fire tax revenue was collected than anticipated — to balance the fire budget for the past few years.
Without a fire tax increase, Wacks said the fund balance would be completely dried up by the end of fiscal year 2013 and the fire department would be facing a $2.5 million to $2.7 million deficit. To avoid a deficit and just break even for fiscal 2013, he said the fire tax would have to be raised to roughly 14.2 cents per $100 of assessed value.
The rationale for the 17.6 cents rate, Wacks explained, is to give the county a little flexibility to build back up the fund balance for expected future cost increases, such as increasing salaries, pension costs and insurance rates, and to avoid having to increase the tax again in the next few years.
Council member Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, asked if the administration considered phasing in the fire tax increase.
"We considered the option but we felt that that would raise the rate higher in (future) years … because costs are going to continue to go up faster than the revenue will grow," Wacks said.
However, Watson still requested that Wacks provide data to prove that it will cost taxpayers less to increase the tax to 17.6 cents now rather than phase in an increase.
Council member Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, raised concerns about the amount of money in the fire department's contingency fund; all department's have a contingency fund for emergencies and unanticipated expenses.
County law says that the county can not put more than 3 percent of its general fund revenues into contingency funds. Because the fire tax revenues are not put into the general fund, Fox questioned whether that rule applies, and if not whether it should.
"If you were to reduce the contingency to 3 percent, you'd be able to reduce the proposed (fire tax) increase by 3 cents right off the bat," he said.
Fox also questioned whether or not the county should look to eliminate the separate fire tax fund and put the money in the general fund, like most other counties in the state do. The move, he explained, would give the county flexibility to cut expenses elsewhere instead of increase the fire tax every time the fire department needs more money.
Goddard said he would be opposed to that and he suspects the general public would be, too.
"With a dedicated fire and EMS tax, they are comfortable knowing it will go to providing fire and EMS services," he said, recalling conversations he's had with residents.
Goddard added: "I think it's very important for this department to live and die based on its budget."