Ecker pushes changes in fire tax rTC Having rural, urban districts is goal

February 22, 1993|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

County Executive Charles I. Ecker hopes his staff will be able to convince the County Council tonight to go ahead with his embattled fire tax proposal.

Mr. Ecker wants to substitute two fire districts -- one rural and one urban -- and two sets of fire taxes for the six fire districts and six sets of fire taxes the county has now.

A bill to accomplish that seemed doomed last week following a public hearing at which representatives of volunteer fire companies urged the County Council to defeat the measure.

They found support from Council Chairwoman Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, who said that at the very least, the idea should be put on hold for several months until it could be studied further.

Putting the plan on hold won't work, Mr. Ecker said, because the county will need new fire tax revenue in the fiscal year beginning July 1 to pay for a new fire station at Route 216 and U.S. 29 in Scaggsville.

If money is a problem, the county could find it another way or else defer the opening of the station, Ms. Pendergrass said.

Mr. Ecker says the problem is more than bringing a new station on line. Fire tax rates now range from a low of 15 cents per $100 of assessed value in the Fourth District -- served by the Lisbon Volunteer Fire Company -- to a high of 23 cents in the Fifth district, served by the Fifth District Volunteer Fire Department in Clarksville and the government-managed Banneker Road station in Columbia.

Since companies respond to fires outside their districts, residents are paying differing rates for essentially the same service, Mr. Ecker said. Having an urban and rural fire district, each with its own tax rate, would be more equitable than the present system, he said.

Unless the tax-rate structure is changed, that difference will become even larger when the new Scaggsville fire station opens, Budget Administrator Raymond S. Wacks told the council.

The new station would probably respond to more calls outside the district than in the district, but fifth district residents would have to pay a tax rate of about 35 cents to support it, Mr. Wacks said. A more equitable proposal, he said, would be to have urban residents -- those receiving water and sewer service -- pay about 25 cents and rural residents pay about 19 cents per $100 of assessed value.

The county cannot create one district with a single fire tax rate without permission from the state legislature, Mr. Wacks said.

Cathy Hudson, president of the Elkridge Community Association, told the council last week that setting different fire tax rates for rural and urban service could set "a dangerous precedent."

"The west asked the east to take the growth" during the recent comprehensive rezoning of the county, she said. "Are we now going to be asked to pay for it?"

Mr. Ecker says he will share with the council tonight a letter he received from the Volunteer Firemen's Association saying the association has no objection to the creation of metropolitan and rural districts with separate fire tax rates.

Mr. Ecker said he is willing to drop the portion of the bill that many volunteers found incendiary, namely, that volunteer companies would have to ask the county for a grant for their operating and capital expenses and that they would have to follow the same procedures as any other nonprofit organization seeking a grant from the county.

"The grant aspect of the bill shows government at its worst -- over regulation including matters totally unrelated to the fiscal aspect of firefighting operations," Thomas M. Meachum, attorney for the Volunteer Firemen's Association told the council last week.

Others testifying last week felt that the grant requirement would ultimately mean the end of volunteer companies altogether.

Mr. Ecker said he was surprised by the opposition, since the grant idea came from a representative of one of the volunteer corporations.

In addition to the fire tax, the council also will consider four other pieces of legislation at tonight's work session: a bill to change the criteria for the agricultural land preservation program, a bill to eliminate the Economic Development Department and shift various offices from there to other departments within the administration, a request to condemn a residential property for park use, and a $44,600 grant that would allow the Recreation and Parks Department to study problems at Centennial Lake.

The council is scheduled to vote on the bills at its March 1 legislative session.

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