Wednesday, April 25, 2007

We don't need no water let the [roof] burn…

A burning debate:

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.

"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.
Is it fair that different parts of the county pay different fire tax rates? Sure, the lack of public water out west can be a limiting factor when fighting a fire, but is that really sufficient justification for them to pay less, especially when those of us in the east already pay separately for water?

I'll abstain from official comment on this one and instead leave it up to the local fire department experts to fill in the blanks.


numbers.girl said...

I'm not a fire department expert, but I wonder if this issue is linked not only to the availability of public water but also to the cost of the professional fire service.

At this time, the only fire station in the county that is 100% volunteer is Lisbon VFD. What that means is that to the extent volunteer firefighters do not man the station and the equipment, the fire department pays from its own coffers to hire part time contingent personnel.

Other stations, even those dubbed “volunteer,” including Stations 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 (Elkridge, Ellicott City, West Friendship, Clarksville, and Savage) rely on county personnel to man the station and the equipment. Volunteers supplement the paid staff, to extents as allowed depending on the department. West Friendship was the most recent addition to this list, and it is my impression that they are still mostly volunteer-staffed in relation to the other “volunteer” stations.

Therefore, with the exception of Lisbon and to a point, West Friendship, it is less costly to the county to man the fire stations in the Western region.

Should that warrant a cheaper tax rate? I can’t say, but I don’t believe that just the water is at issue.

jjim adams said...

Hayduke, I am not sure what you mean when you are saying something about the west paying less, when those on the east pay separately.

Those in the west pay less, because the cost is less.

With the proposed water bill rate increase, the rate for the west would increase greater than 28%, the east greater than 10%.

The case could be made that the west will benefit from the water tanks and improved fire stations, but I think there should be more detail provided to justify the large increase to the west.

I also think the 18m for Mount Hebron could be delayed, if they can not make a decision as to what to do with the school this year. Delay the 16m deposit for the county office construction, more office space means more government employees and more taxes for citizens. Delay the 1m plus for the new library, since the local government does not own the property it was going to build on.

This would allow for all four stages of the water tank program (cost per year 1.7 x 4 years = 6.8m) to be completed in the same year. Not a bad idea, since we have no idea when and where fires may happen.

Also there would be no increase in our water bills.

Increased fire protection, without increasing water rates, by delaying capital projects would place the concern for each Howard County citizen first in this decision process.

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