ANNAPOLIS — Money is tight these days not only for businesses and families, but also for Carroll's volunteer fire departments -- so tight that the Mount Airy Volunteer Fire Co. is hoping a first-ever spring "barnyard bingo" event will be a bankable fund-raiser.
Like bingo, contestants will have money riding on certain squares, the winners to be determined by wherever the host cow chooses to plop.
As costs for equipment soars and increased demand strains facilities, Carroll's 14 fire companies are searching for innovative ways toraise money to continue operating.
The more tried-and-true events-- breakfasts, dinners, dances, solicitations, carnivals and traditional bingo -- have suffered at the box office because of the recession, said Oscar Baker, Carroll County Volunteer Firemen's Association president.
But fund-raising alone isn't sufficient to ensure that the Carroll commissioners will not be compelled soon to create a county-financed fire department -- which Baker estimates conservatively atcosting $15 million to $20 million to start -- to meet demands.
For the past decade, the commissioners have sold bonds, using the proceeds to lend to the fire companies for capital expenses, such as new engines and building improvements. The fire companies benefit becausethe county can offer lower interest rates than banks, meaning significant long-term savings. The county also at taches less stringent requirements than a bank loan.
"It's been a real life-saver for fire companies," said Baker. "Just think what the tax rate would go to fora career as opposed to volunteer service."
But the county's fund has been depleted since the General Assembly last granted authority to lend $2 million to fire companies in 1990. Mount Airy borrowed about $1.6 million to build a new fire station, and the Union Bridge and Winfield departments each received about $200,000 for fire engines.
The Carroll delegation is sponsoring legislation that would allow the commissioners to borrow up to $2 million, "from time to time," to make loans to the fire companies.
"We couldn't have built the new station without the county loan," said Pat Holmes, president of the Mount Airy Fire Co.
The 6.1 percent interest rate from the county is at least 2 percent lower than what would be available from a bank, said Holmes. It means the company will save up to 25 percent on interest payments, "and that's a lot of fund-raising," he said.
Baker said ambulances have doubled in cost in recent years to around $100,000; fire engines cost between $210,000 and $260,000.
Another bill sponsored by the delegation to assist volunteer firefighters would permit designated "fire-police officers" to equip their personal vehicles with portable red and white flashing lights. The lights could be flashed only while the vehicle is at the scene of an accident or emergency to which the company has responded.
The bill, defeated the last three years, is intended to improve safety for the fire-police officers and for motorists heading toward an emergency scene.
Using car blinkers or flares isn't as effective in warning motorists approaching from blind spots, said Fred Hooper, Pleasant Valley Fire Co. fire-police officer.
The Maryland State Police has opposed the bill previously, saying the flashing lights could confuse the public and further complicate laws concerning vehicle lights. The agency also expressed concern that fire-police officers could abuse the privilege and use the lights en route to an accident.