Burning resentment over fire unit funding


March 04, 2001|By Mike Burns

WHERE there's smoke there's fire department troubles.

The latest smoke signal comes from Mount Airy. That border town is caught in the crunch of two different counties with two different approaches to financing their fire and ambulance services.

Frederick County wants to begin charging its half of the divided municipality a tax for fire and emergency services supported by that county.

The Carroll County half protests that it supports the Mount Airy Volunteer Fire Company that is located in Carroll, supported in part by town taxes, and serves the entire town without respect to official political boundary lines. That volunteer unit also gets a lot of money from the Carroll County treasury.

Under the Frederick County plan, Mount Airy residents would pay a tax of 10 cents per $100 assessed value of their real property.

Regardless of the level of the fire tax for those living on the wrong side of the county line, Mayor Gerald Johnson screams that the levy is unjust and amounts to double taxation.

The Frederick plan was based on a countywide study of its volunteer fire company needs. Mount Airy was not included, because its station is in Carroll County.

If his constituents must pay a Frederick County levy, Mr. Johnson says the proceeds should be earmarked for the Mount Airy fire company.

That's the closest unit, the one that would most likely provide services to residents in emergencies. It's the hometown fire department that is supported by town taxes -- but also by generous local donations and voluntary service.

Until now, all Mount Airy residents have been exempt from the Frederick County fire district levy. But Frederick has proposed changing that, while restructuring and raising the taxing system for all that county's residents.

A public hearing will be held in April on the proposed changes. The tax would be imposed beginning July 1.

It would only affect the half of town that lies within Frederick. Town residents on the Carroll side would, naturally, not be subject to the new tax.

But the change in longstanding policy will undoubtedly have an impact on the entire town.

It will likely change the way the town contributes to the Mount Airy fire company. Last year, it gave $90,000 for operations of the fire department.

It could well change the amount of money and support given by the Carroll County government to that fire company. Carroll paid about $370,000 last year for the Mount Airy fire unit.

This is not to suggest that the Mount Airy company will fail to provide fire and emergency services. It's made up of motivated volunteers. They'll surely respond to calls in both counties, without thought of taxes and funding.

But it is another major mess resulting from the differing, conflicting approaches to providing vital fire and ambulance services in the various counties.

Most Maryland counties have volunteer fire departments, or companies, which have a varying degree of autonomy. The counties provide some financial support for the units. The companies also raise a lot of their own money through fund-raisers andsolicitations.

In Carroll and other fast growing counties, volunteers can't provide the complete round-the-clock staffing for emergency medical services. So the county increasingly pays for more paid staff to fill the gaps. The county's share of other operating costs is also rising.

As the county provides more money, it demands a closer accountability and control.

A couple of years ago, Carroll was at loggerheads with Baltimore County about charging patients for emergency ambulance calls.

Baltimore County (with a mix of paid and volunteer fire departments) does not charge its citizens for ambulance runs.

Carroll fire companies began the practice of billing for ambulance runs to help meet rising costs. But when the volunteer units answered calls across the county line (a common practice), it also billed those patients.

After a lot of heated exchanges, and reference to the regional agreement on mutual aid, the Carroll companies backed off. Now they are not supposed to send bills out of county.

The ambulance billing dispute has now become an intra-county one. The Reese volunteer company still refuses to bill more than a nominal $5 for emergency runs, while the other 12 Carroll volunteer companies with ambulance units have agreed to charge a minimum of $200 per call.

Consequently, the volunteer association refuses to give Reese its quarterly share of the county's financial support. The county refused to intervene, so did the Circuit Court. Reese is pursuing a further legal appeal.

The county commissioners are leaning toward making the ambulance billing a centralized, county process. That might end the current dispute, but it's unclear what would happen next. Probably, the county will have to assume more of the responsibility, and cost, of ambulance services for its residents.

And that leads us back to the Frederick County fire tax decision that distresses Mount Airy.

The reason for restructuring the taxation system, a Frederick official explained, is so that the county could avoid having to charge residents for making ambulance calls.

Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.

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