Upset that his Democratic colleagues on the County Council decided not hold another work session on the proposed fire tax increase, lone council Republican Greg Fox issued a news release Tuesday announcing his proposal to reduce the increase and explaining his rationale for opposing the county executive's suggested rate.
Fox has filed an amendment to the resolution that would raise the fire tax to 17.6 cents per $100 of assessed value, proposing instead the rate be raised to 14.3 cents.
Residents in the rural west have been paying 11.6 cents per $100 of assessed value and residents in the east have been paying 13.6 cents per $100 of assessed value.
The council is scheduled to vote on the county budget and related legislation, including the resolution to raise the fire tax, on Thursday morning.
A fire tax rate of 14.3 cents would still raise enough revenue to fund the fire department's budget, Fox said, but it would not raise the $15 million the county had planned to put into the department's contingency fund.
"The citizens of Howard County have just been disproportionately hit by the Governor and Democrat controlled legislature during the special session by increasing income taxes and reducing exemptions resulting in more than a $3 Million increase," Fox said in a statement. "Now, the County Executive wants to remove another $15 Million out of our citizens' wallets and the Howard County economy. It is absurd."
In an e-mailed response to Fox's comment, Kevin Enright, a spokesman for County Executive Ken Ulman, said, "I'm not sure what political parties have to do with this issue, but we are glad Greg agrees with the level of service that the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue should provide.
"What the County Executive has proposed is a smart, effective multi-year management plan for rescue services. Long term budgeting is what responsible governments do."
Fox's proposed rate would leave roughly a half-million dollars in the contingency fund, which he said keeps it at a "safe level."
He also argues that the fire department contingency fund should be held to a maximum of 3 percent, as the county charter says contingency reserves "shall not exceed three per centum of the general fund and of any other fund."
Since the fire tax is a separate fund, Fox contends it should have to abide by the 3 percent rule. However, the Office of Law, responding to a request from Fox, said the charter language is open to multiple interpretations.
Anne Arundel County has identical charter language on contingency reserves and its Office of Law has interpreted the provision to apply to each fund, Fox said.
"This combined with the specific wording of the charter provision leaves an open door to have this challenged in court if it were to pass with greater than a 3% contingency," Fox said in his release.
County officials have argued that if the rate is raised just enough to cover the fire department's budget for this year, the tax will have to be increased again next year. However, Fox refutes that argument.
"First, the county has the option to utilize general fund dollars to supplement the fire tax," he said in the release. "The provision to use general funds to support the Fire Department budget was passed in 1998 as we had a similar long run of flat housing prices. Second, the county could and should look into incorporating the Fire Tax into the General Fund. With the exception of Montgomery County, this would make Howard County consistent with all other counties in the State of Maryland other than those that maintain different Fire Tax rates for various parts of their counties."