Public safety officials seek support for Ecker budget proposals

April 28, 1995|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

Support for public safety took center stage last night at a sparsely attended hearing on County Executive Charles I. Ecker's $328.5 million proposed operating budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The Police Department's $25 million budget proposal "is neither overly austere or inflated" and should be fully funded, said William Volenick, chairman of the department's Citizens' Advisory Council.

Crime -- especially juvenile crime -- "is going to grow," he told the five-member County Council. "During the last year, juvenile lawlessness was almost out of control," with 41 percent of the most serious crimes committed by juveniles -- "our own residents, not outsiders."

Public safety officials were seeking council support for Mr. Ecker's budget proposals for their departments.

Chief James E. Heller, the county fire director, told the council that the fire service is so understaffed that some firefighters are risking their lives because there are not enough people to back them up.

He said the service needs 51 people to bring it up to strength, and he is seeking funding for 25 new hires this year. The service has 211 paid firefighters.

According to federal mandates, he said, the fire service should have a minimum of four firefighters on every ladder truck, three firefighters on every fire engine and two emergency medical rescue technicians on every ambulance.

Currently, trucks are sent out with as few as two firefighters -- a potentially life-threatening situation for those who have to enter burning buildings, Chief Heller said.

He likened the personnel shortage and an ever-increasing number of emergency calls to a rubber band. "We have stretched the rubber band to the point of near failure," he said. "We have not only a responsibility [to change that situation], we have a moral obligation" to do so.

In order to do that, the council would have to approve the 2-cent increase proposed by Mr. Ecker in the metropolitan fire tax rate -- which would bring it to 24 cents per $100 of assessed value for property owners living in the metropolitan district. The rural district fire tax would remain at 19 cents per $100 of assessed value.

The metropolitan district increase would add about $20 a year to the fire tax on a $200,000 home. Seven of the county's fire stations are in the metro district, two are in the rural district, and two stations -- Clarksville and Scaggsville -- serve both the metro and rural fire districts. Most county residents live in the metropolitan district.

The revenue from the fire tax increase would be used to offer cardiopulmonary resuscitation training in local communities, pay the salary of a part-time medical director and hire 23 new firefighters -- all of whom would be trained as emergency rescue technicians, Chief Heller said. Nearly 70 percent of the 39,933 calls that the fire service responded to last year were for emergency rescue services, he said.

Coast Guard Capt. William Bowen chairs a 13-member task force that has been reviewing the county's emergency medical service. He told the council that the group's goal is to have one-third of the citizenry skilled in providing CPR.

"The vision of the Howard County Fire and Rescue Service is to become the pre-eminent provider of emergency services in the state of Maryland," Captain Bowen said.

Chief Heller acknowledged that raising the fire tax is "not a pleasant task," but said it is the only option. About 30 people had called the county this week to complain about the proposed fire tax increase, but none showed up last night.

The only person speaking against the tax increase was Patrick Dornan, president of the Howard County Taxpayers' Association.

"It looks to us like the county executive got kind of generous this year," he told the council. "The proposed increase is most unjustified. Many residents suffered a huge increase [in the fire tax] two years ago, and the fact the increase is only in the metropolitan district is starting us on an inequity path once again."

The county is going to have to pay about $7.5 million more a year from now on for trash removal -- because the landfill will be closed -- and should be cutting Mr. Ecker's proposed fiscal 1996 budget to get ready for it, Mr. Dornan warned.

"You're going to have to raise both the piggyback and the property tax," he told the council. "You will have raised taxes three out of five years, which is something for a conservative council."

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