Volunteer firefighters denounce bill Control at stake in 6-district plan

February 17, 1993|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

Volunteer firefighters last night vigorously opposed a bill that would substitute two fire districts and two sets of fire taxes for the six fire districts and six sets of fire taxes that Howard County has now.

"This bill is a bad deal for the taxpayers of Howard County [and] pulls the rug out from under the volunteer firefighters," said Douglas A. Levy, a Savage volunteer.

"It would make us subject to the personal whims" of either County Executive Charles I. Ecker or Darl R. McBride, director of county fire and rescue services, Mr. Levy told the County Council at a public hearing on the bill.

The bill requires each company to ask for a grant from the county to cover operating and capital expenses. The county executive would decide whether to fund all or part of the grant and include it in the proposal the administration sends to the council.

"It takes away our ability to control our tax rates by giving the career system complete control over the annual budgets" of volunteer companies, Mr. Levy said.

"Our funding would become a matter of politics, not public safety," he said. The bill "puts the fox in charge of the chicken coop by authorizing the director and his staff to impose their rules on us without any discussion or oversight."

The grant restrictions are similar to those imposed on any nonprofit organization receiving public funds, said Raymond S. Wacks, county budget administrator.

"We don't need a grant agreement to handle public money carefully," said Thomas M. Meachum, attorney for the Howard County Volunteer Firemen's Association Inc. The volunteer companies "have been doing that for more than 100 years -- longer than county government," he said.

Mr. Wacks agreed that the volunteer fire service has provided "invaluable service and saved the county millions of dollars" in that time, but current fire taxes bear almost no resemblance to the service provided in their districts, he said.

"There is a lot of unfairness" under the current system, said Mr. Wacks, because some residents are paying more for essentially the same service. That unfairness will increase if the county does not change the system, he said.

The administration is proposing that two districts replace the current six. People in the urban district -- the part of the county that roughly approximates Howard's planned water and sewer area -- would pay one rate; people in the rural district would pay another.

Under the current system, taxpayers in the fifth fire district could pay a tax rate of 35 cents per $100 of assessed value in the coming fiscal year to support a new fire station that would respond to many calls outside the district, Mr. Wacks said. Residents in the first district could pay a tax rate of 15 cents for essentially the same service, he said.

Under the two-tier system proposed by Mr. Ecker, residents in the metropolitan area could pay a tax rate of about 25 cents per $100 of assessed value and residents in the rural district could pay a tax rate of about 19 cents, Mr. Wacks said. Individual district fire tax rates range now from a low of 15 cents to a high of 23 cents per $100 of assessed value.

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