Fire tax plan blocked

Robey seeks single rate for Howard, but deadlock bars action

January 02, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

For want of one vote, Howard County's delegation to the House of Delegates is refusing to consider a proposal to revamp the county's unusual fire tax system.

Democratic Del. Elizabeth Bobo and the county's three Republican delegates created a 4-4 deadlock in the county's House delegation -- blocking any vote, or even a hearing, on the issue this year. The vote, which was taken by mail ballot, was tallied last week.

The county's three senators said they are willing to give the idea a hearing as a courtesy to County Executive James N. Robey, who proposed the tax change. But a hearing would depend on approval by both the Senate and House delegations.

"This is a big, new issue. I just don't think it's good to try to squeeze it in at the last minute like that," Bobo said, adding that her vote agreeing with the Republicans isn't all that unusual. "It's just not a good way to do business."

Robey, a Democrat, wants authority from the county's General Assembly delegation to combine Howard County's two fire tax districts into one, creating a single, countywide fire tax.

Residents in the rural west pay 22 cents per $100 of assessed property value, while those in the populous eastern county pay 27 cents. That's in addition to the county's $2.61 property tax rate.

Unlike counties such as Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Prince George's, where money for fire and rescue services comes from general tax revenues, Howard relies on a separate fund, fueled by a separate property tax.

Howard's fire service is rooted in a volunteer era from the last century. Over the years, professional firefighters were hired, and their numbers have gradually grown. There are now 300 paid professionals and 200 volunteers.

The county has 11 stations and a $26 million fire budget. Until 1993, the county had six fire districts, but switched to two that year.

Penny increase expected

Robey and the County Council raised the fire tax 3 cents in July and anticipate adding another penny this year.

With plans to soon build and staff a new station in Glenwood, in the rural western county, a Robey-appointed committee predicted a 20-cent increase in the western rate within five years, if the tax structure is not changed.

In a Dec. 13 report, the committee recommended sticking with tradition by maintaining separate fire funding, but combining the two districts into one and leveling the tax for all residents.

Estimates are that the fire tax rate would be 35.7 cents countywide by 2004 under that system.

But the report was released later than expected -- a month after the delegation's annual mid-November public hearing on local bills.

Republican Del. Donald E. Murphy said he is opposed to considering the measure now, because the public did not have enough time to evaluate the proposal.

"The people of Howard County don't get the same opportunity for input if you defer this into the [legislative] session," Murphy said.

Although another public hearing is scheduled Feb. 15 in Ellicott City, that meeting is set to get opinions on statewide legislation, Murphy said.

And because the General Assembly's 90-day session is under way by then, he said he and other legislators might not be able to attend.

Robey said he would bring the proposal back next year if the delegation refused to hear it, although the eventual outcome is far from certain.

Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Democrat who chairs the House delegation, and Sen. Martin G. Madden, the Senate minority leader, said they want the fire budget merged with the general fund -- doing away with the separate fire tax system.

Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, a Republican who is the county's Senate delegation leader, said he too is leaning toward that idea.

Pendergrass said merging the fire tax with the general property tax would make it deductible on federal income tax returns, saving taxpayers money. She and Madden also object to singling out fire services for funding.

"Do we really believe that the fire service is more important than the police service?" Pendergrass said.

One-county concept

"We should have a one-Howard-County concept," Madden said.

And Bobo said that although she is a Democrat like Robey, her vote was not meant to show disrespect or disloyalty.

"It's certainly not intended in any way to be a slap in the face of the executive," she said.

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