Robey studies fire-tax change

Executive ponders raising rate or killing 2-tier system

Amid budget planning

March 16, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

HOWARD COUNTY — As he ponders his choices for next year's budget, Howard County Executive James N. Robey is confronted with a difficult yet tempting two-edged option: raising or eliminating the county's two-tier fire tax.

Each beckons with different charms, as Robey - beset with requests that are $30 million higher than expected income - makes final budget decisions in what he has called his most difficult year in office.

"I definitely don't envy Jim Robey this year. He's in a tough position," said County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican.

The "fire property tax," which pays for county fire services, is more in the spotlight this year because of the state's Truth in Taxation law, which simplifies property assessments by using 100 percent of value instead of 40 percent. To keep the tax bills the same as in previous years, Howard's property tax rate was reduced.

It would be politically easier for Robey to raise Howard's fire tax this year, because the rate is much lower than it had been. Similarly, if he decides to merge the fire tax into the general fund, it won't seem to many residents as if the county's tax rates are rising.

That's because under the new state assessment system, Howard's general property tax dropped from $2.61 to $1.044 per $100 of assessed value. The fire tax rates dropped from 27 cents in the eastern county to 10.8 cents, and from 22 cents in the western county to 8.8 cents per $100 of assessed value.

For each penny of property tax increase, the county would reap $2.1 million in revenue, while the owner of a $100,000 home would pay $10.44 more per penny increase.

Raising the fire property tax rate 2.5 cents, for example, would provide the $4.6 million that the county fire department wants but that the current fire tax rate wouldn't provide next year. Robey raised the rate 3 cents in 1999, his first year in office. Because the money goes for a specific purpose, a fire tax increase seems to carry less political risk, some officials say.

"I see that as a different decision, since this is a dedicated fund," said County Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat.

"If this tax is increased, I get a certain service for it," Merdon said.

But the county executive also has been urged to merge the fire tax revenues into the general fund, eliminating Howard's unusual way of paying for fire and rescue services.

With the annual budget presentation scheduled April 17, Robey said this week that both options are "under consideration. No decision has been made yet."

Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, said Robey also is thinking about another option. "He's clearly also looking at deep cuts in the requests," Wacks said.

Howard County's method of funding fire services is unlike that of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Prince George's counties, where general property and income taxes pay for all county services, including the fire department. Montgomery County also has a separate fire tax, but Howard has two fire tax districts.

Western county residents pay a lower rate because they are outside the area served by public water and sewerage.

Last year, Robey proposed merging Howard's two fire districts into one to help pay for growth, such as construction and staffing of a new station in rural Glenwood - in effect, raising the rates for western county residents. He rejected merging the fire tax into the general revenue fund, partly because of fears that taxpayers and businesses would think the general tax rate had increased.

But Howard's state legislators rejected the proposed merger, and nothing changed. Western county residents and politicians didn't want to pay more, and some say a station isn't needed in Glenwood.

Charles Feaga, Farm Bureau president and former western county councilman, said people in his area don't want higher taxes of any kind. "I think the Farm Bureau and the rest of the county would be really offended to increase the fire tax," he said.

The fire department budget request for next year contains $100,000 for a study of the system's building needs, including recent requests for new stations in Elkridge and West Friendship.

"I want to take a big look," said Robey, who last year strongly backed the need for a Glenwood station.

Most of the new money Fire Chief Joseph Herr requested would pay for higher operating costs - from fuel to equipment, higher salaries and five new firefighters and an enhanced pension package.

County Council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, and western county Republican Allan H. Kittleman said it is too early for them to take a position on the fire tax. Neither Kittleman nor Merdon want western county residents to pay more to match easterners. But Merdon and Gray also said they are interested in possibly merging fire tax revenues with general funds.

"Everything is theoretical until the budget comes out. We have to figure out where our priorities are," said Kittleman.

County tax rates

General Property Tax Rates Old: $2.61 per $100 of assessed value

New: $1.044 per $100 of assessed value

Amount raised per penny of property-tax rate increase: $2.1 million

For a $100,000 home, each penny of tax rate increase will cost the homeowner $10.44

Fire Tax Rates

Old: 27 cents in eastern county and 22 cents in western county

New: 10.8 cents in eastern county and 8.8 cents in western county

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