Governor proposes aid for fire companies $2.5 million plan offered for Prince George's in lieu of gambling funds

March 26, 1997|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced yesterday a five-year, $2.5 million plan to keep fire engines rolling in his home county after revenue from "charitable" gambling ends at his urging in May.

He also announced a study of the way Maryland as a whole supports -- or fails to support -- its system of firefighting, which relies on 35,000 volunteers at 365 volunteer companies throughout the state.

Thirteen of 43 volunteer companies in Prince George's County, where Glendening was county executive before becoming governor, pay for equipment with revenue from casinos. Some say they face repossession of their engines without financial help.

At a news conference in a roomful of uniformed fire officials, Glendening said, "First and foremost, we must protect the lives and property of those people who greatly depend on volunteer fire and rescue service."

The governor's plan drew criticism from House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who questioned state spending for a service that he said should be paid for by local taxpayers.

But firefighters throughout the state applauded the promised study almost as lustily as they welcomed the bail-out of their colleagues in Prince George's.

"The fire service is struggling hard to survive," said Bernard J. Smith, president of the Lansdowne Volunteer Fire Department and an officer of the Maryland State Volunteer Firemens Association.

Smith said the state has never met the $7 million a year aid goal recommended after a study in 1983.

This year's appropriation from the state's so-called 508 Fund for volunteer fire services was $5.09 million. That money is allocated to the 23 counties and Baltimore, which count on it to meet annual firefighting needs.

Under Glendening's plan, the $579,079 earmarked this year for Prince George's County would be doubled for the next five years.

That money, combined with funds raised by local companies and assistance from the county, would help to erase the volunteer companies' combined debt of $8.1 million, the governor said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, also from Prince George's, said an aid package was essential because many companies have "long-term commitments they can't meet."

The situation is similarly dire in other counties, he said.

Taylor said the governor's helping hand for Prince George's might also focus attention on a problem that goes beyond any link between gambling and firefighting equipment in a single county.

He said officials have tried to shift their responsibilities to the state -- and in Prince George's, voters exacerbated the problem by imposing a limit on local taxes.

Now they are turning to the state for help in paying for the most basic municipal service, Taylor said.

He called the proposal "a further step in the wrong direction."

Under state law, the casinos run by nonprofit groups in Prince George's must shut down in May, and Glendening has promised to veto any effort to extend them.

He reaffirmed his conviction that charitable gambling in the county has grown to "semi-professional" status, is vulnerable to abuse and has committed a paltry percentage of its take to charity.

Gambling interests have said they are closely regulated, honestly run for the most part and are major contributors to good causes.

Pub Date: 3/26/97

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