Lose a House, Save a Tax Rate

May 11, 1995

Certainly, we reasoned, Howard County Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga was being facetious when he suggested this week that the fire department should let a building here and there burn to the ground or arrive a few minutes late to a crisis for the sake of preserving the county tax rate.

Unbelievably, upon closer examination, it appears Mr. Feaga wasn't kidding. In his zeal to hold the line on taxes, the council chairman feels that Howard residents will welcome less when it comes to emergency services.

Mr. Feaga's remarks came in opposition to a proposed 2-cent increase in the metropolitan fire district tax rate. The increase would raise the rate to 24 cents per $100 of assessed value. The result: Most homeowners' annual tax bills would increase by $20. County Fire Chief James E. Heller wants the increase in order to hire 51 new firefighters and better staff the county's emergency vehicles.

But Mr. Feaga, whose tight-fistedness is commendable under many circumstances, has miscalculated the depth of the public's willingness to sacrifice. "Anything wrong with arriving a minute later or two minutes later?" he asked the chief.

"What about letting a house burn down in some neighborhoods and saving the ones around it?"

Chief Heller had the good sense to realize the awkward situation he was in and never responded directly to Mr. Feaga. He did, however, say that by not agreeing to the increase officials would have to reassess how the fire department delivers service. He was not specific, but the warning was ominous.

While no one is suggesting that the fire department be given a blank check, the alternative offered by Mr. Feaga is wholly unacceptable. County residents aren't likely to acquiesce to a plan that allows houses to burn simply because it sounds like old-fashioned common sense.

The potential for loss of life and property demands a speedy reaction -- and minutes in response time make a huge difference. Moreover, 70 percent of the fire department's calls are for emergency medical service, where time is of the essence.

Mr. Feaga, a farmer with an independent streak, may be sincere in his opinions about the fire department. Most county residents, however, aren't likely to embrace his misplaced notion of rugged individualism, not when it regards fire protection.

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