Hiding behind the fire tax Howard County: System of funding firefighting is outdated and masks a true property tax.

December 08, 1997

BEFORE HOWARD COUNTY had a centralized fire system, $$ six independent companies served different portions of a still largely rural jurisdiction. Folks in Elkridge paid for one company, people in West Friendship another. Quality of service varied depending on where one lived.

Those days are gone, but the antiquated system of funding firefighting in Howard isn't.

County residents still pay separately for property and fire taxes. Moreover, people in the semi-rural western area pay a different rate than those in the more populous east side. This confusing two-tier structure for fire taxation makes as little sense now as it would to have different rates to fund different schools.

Howard remains the only jurisdiction in the metropolitan area with such a tax. Politicians are loathe to change it, however, because the fire tax keeps the county's property tax rate deceptively low. Property owners in densely populated areas -- about 83 percent of county residents -- pay 24 cents per $100 of assessed value for fire services in addition to their $2.59 property tax. Owners in the semi-rural west pay 19 cents per $100 for fire service.

Why the west pays less is a mystery. Because of increased travel time and fewer water sources, one must assume it is more expensive to fight fires in a sparsely populated area, just as it would be to provide sewers or cable TV service there. Apparently, the cheaper rate is one more throwback to the days when the company that served the west charged less.

Combining the tax would promote truth in taxation, to borrow an old phrase from County Executive Charles I. Ecker. The County Council would have to first abolish the fire tax and then -- here's the rub -- raise property taxes to make up the difference. With this method, the county's property tax rate would be $2.83.

There would be no change in the total tax bill for eastern Howard residents. It would mean a 5-cent rise for property owners in the west, where a new fire station is planned.

A more consolidated tax structure may not remedy the projected budget shortfall for fire service. Growth is driving up the cost of fire and rescue at 8 percent a year. Charges for ambulance service still could prove necessary, but first the county must rid itself of a fire tax that is both an anachronism and a deception.

Pub Date: 12/08/97

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