Uniform fire tax defeated Delegation heeds western sentiment

April 01, 1993|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Staff Writer

The Howard County legislative delegation killed an attempt yesterday to create a uniform fire tax in the county.

The 4-3 vote spelled defeat for the County Council, which had pushed the plan. The council is expected to consider an alternative system with two tax rates at a meeting Wednesday.

A uniform tax would have consolidated an antiquated system that divides Howard County into six districts where residents pay widely varying rates for essentially the same fire service.

"I think eventually we will need one fire district," said County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who supported the uniform rate. But "two districts will be better than what we have now."

Under the current system, residents can pay 15 to 23 cents per $100 of assessed value for fire service. Fire departments work in each other's districts because of proximity; the rates bear little resemblance to the actual cost of service. Thus, people in one jurisdiction end up subsidizing service in another.

The system under council consideration would make taxes a little fairer by creating a rural and an urban fire district, Mr. Ecker said.

Raymond S. Wacks, county budget administrator, estimated that rural residents would pay 19 cents per $100 of assessed value under the proposed system. Urban residents would pay approximately 22 cents per $100 of assessed value, he said.

Mr. Ecker brought the uniform fire-tax plan to the delegation because the county needed state legislation to enact it. Howard legislators voted it down after a public hearing last week in which eight of 11 speakers opposed it.

"The people in the west county all don't want it," said Del. Robert H. Kittleman, a District 14B Republican, who voted against the uniform tax. "It's a cultural thing."

Also voting against the measure were Sen. Christopher JMcCabe, a District 14 Republican; Del. John S. Morgan, a District 13B Republican; and Del. Donald B. Elliott, a District 4B Republican. Voting in favor were Sen. Thomas M. Yeager, a District 13 Democrat; Del. Virginia M. Thomas, a District 13A Democrat; and Del. Martin G. Madden, a District 13B Republican.

There was little discussion before the vote. The delegation members had talked extensively about the issue at an earlier meeting.

County Councilman Charles C. Feaga, who represents the rural western county, said the uniform tax dispute was about a way of life. Eastern Howard County is staffed by many professional firefighters, while the western fire departments are almost completely volunteer.

Two and three generations of families have served as volunteer firefighters in the western county, in part to help keep taxes down. Mr. Feaga said that some firefighters fear that a single tax rate would take away that incentive and could begin to erode the community fire-fighting system.

Chief Gary Unverzagt of the West Friendship Volunteer Fireman's Association said he preferred the two tax systems to the uniform one, because rural residents would at least save some money.

He conceded that a single rate would make it harder for him to recruit volunteers with the pitch "Come join us and keep the fire tax down." Still, he said, he thought most volunteers were motivated more by altruism than tax savings.

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