Ecker's firefighter decision Howard County: His task force may shout 'fire,' but executive is still hesitant to jump.

April 17, 1996

FRUGALITY IS WHAT makes Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker so good at what he does. His efforts to make sure every penny spent by government is necessary to ensure the health, safety and welfare of county residents is appreciated. But people want him to be very sure when he resists increasing police or fire protection.

Those are big-ticket items because of the personnel costs associated with them. But when it comes to protecting lives and property, people are usually willing to spend more. For that very reason, it would have been easy for Mr. Ecker to take a new report that says the county doesn't have enough firefighters and ask for a tax increase so he can hire more. True to character, though, he has not done that. He wants to be sure the report is right.

The analysis, produced by a task force Mr. Ecker convened last December, calls for a delayed $400,000 allocation to the fire department to be made in the fiscal year that begins July 1 so that 23 previously budgeted firefighter positions can be filled. But the report also suggests a 1-cent increase in the county fire tax (currently 24 cents per $100 of assessed property value) to hire 19 more firefighters next year.

Mr. Ecker may have put together the task force for guidance on fire department staffing, but he doesn't feel bound to follow its recommendations. He believes the fire department can avoid hiring up to 43 additional people, as the report suggests, by being more innovative in devising work schedules and by using more volunteers. He will have to be convinced that those alternatives would be inadequate.

The county executive, however, does agree that the initial 23 additional firefighters should be hired. And employing them should provide the time needed to properly evaluate the rest of the report's hiring recommendations. Mr. Ecker must consider news stories last year that some families faced additional risks because certain county fire vehicles were undermanned.

Mr. Ecker is right to insist every other alternative be considered -- before taxes are raised to hire more firefighters. But with the county's population expanding into new areas, the new hires may be required more rapidly than he now thinks. Ultimately, he must make sure the need for additional firefighters isn't proven in the most dramatic way possible -- a loss of life.

Pub Date: 4/17/96

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