Higher tax for fire services considered County also may add ambulance fee in bid to increase revenues

November 27, 1997|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

The rising cost of fire and rescue services has Howard County officials considering a higher fire tax, a new charge for ambulance runs or both to bolster revenues.

A new union settlement and the sweeping personnel changes pushed by County Executive Charles I. Ecker have strained this year's fire budget to the point that 20 firefighter positions approved in May are unlikely to be filled.

But as with most of Howard's budget dilemmas, the root of the problem is the county's rapid growth. With hundreds of new homes and thousands of new residents each year, the demand for services is growing faster than the tax base.

"We face some tough decisions," says Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget chief.

Those decisions are complicated by election-year politics. With two County Council members running for executive, and Ecker running for governor, nobody is in the mood to raise taxes.

The fire tax is 24 cents for each $100 of assessed property value in the densely populated eastern part of Howard, and 19 cents per $100 in rural western Howard. The last increase was in 1995.

A 17-member committee of county officials and residents is studying a rate increase and other revenue sources, with the goal of reporting recommendations to Ecker in February.

But Ecker says, "I don't want to raise the fire tax. I don't see the need for it right now."

He reacted more favorably to another issue before the committee -- charging for ambulance transport. Baltimore and many Maryland counties charge such fees. Insurance companies usually end up paying the bills.

Howard officials estimate the fire department could raise $2.5 million a year with ambulance transport fees of $190 for a regular trip and $500 for one requiring advanced life support.

The county would have to spend about $100,000 for an insurance policy covering emergency medical workers against lawsuits. State law provides blanket immunity for good Samaritans, including Howard's emergency medical workers, who provide medical help for free.

Howard's fire department -- and its budget -- have grown sharply in recent years. It now responds to nearly 19,000 calls a year with 110 vehicles. The budget is $18 million, triple the amount of a decade ago.

The county has 11 fire stations, including the new $3.3 million facility in Ellicott City. A station in Clarksville, scheduled to open next summer, will cost about $3.3 million in county funds. A $3.5 million station in Glenwood is scheduled for construction in the next few years.

A portion of the county's transfer tax has long been dedicated to building fire stations and equipping them with vehicles, but those funds have shrunk as Howard's housing market has slowed.

The fire tax also has not grown quickly enough to keep up with the expenses of a fire department with 245 career firefighters and 175 volunteers.

Ecker had a three-year plan to add 60 firefighters, but this year's installment of 20 new slots is on hold because of the budget troubles.

One factor is the recent union settlement that beefs up retirement benefits for firefighters.

County officials say the package was necessary to slow the flight of firefighters to neighboring counties with better pay and benefits. By retaining more firefighters, the county eventually would save on recruiting and training. Union concessions on leave policy also will save money in the long run, officials say.

But for now, the improved retirement benefits will cost the county $374,000 a year.

"It doesn't put money in the pot," says fire Chief James E. Heller.

Personnel changes pushed by Ecker, if accepted by the union, would mean higher pay for beginning firefighters and performance bonuses. The price tag: $491,000.

The cost of the personnel changes rankles Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat. "We should not have approved the personnel bill until we understood all of the ramifications," she says.

A final option for dealing with the fire department's budget problems is to eliminate the separate fire tax and merge the department into the general fund, from which police, snowplowing, schools and most other expenses of local government are paid.

Such a change would be easier to swallow than a tax increase.

"In an election year," says Republican Councilman Darrel E. Drown of Ellicott City, "no one's going to touch that."

Pub Date: 11/27/97

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