Executive seeks to remove the cap on county fire tax

Late bill offers flexibility

4 on council must OK suspending filing rules

March 29, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Less than three weeks before he is due to publicly present his annual budget, Howard County Executive James N. Robey wants permission to raise the fire property tax beyond the current ceiling.

That might mean he plans to ask the County Council to approve a tax increase, but administration officials aren't saying, for now.

"I'm close. It's a real possibility," Robey said about the decision to seek an increase yesterday.

"It gives him the option," Raymond S. Wacks, county budget director, said of a late bill that, if passed, would remove the current ceiling on the tax.

Robey said the bill was late because he had "forgotten all about the need to increase the cap."

According to Wacks, the fire department is asking for $4.6 million more than the current tax would produce.

"We can take it from the operating budget or take from the fire tax," Robey said.

The executive, a Democrat, is scheduled to unveil his capital budget Monday and his operating budget April 17. The council then will have until June to make changes and adopt a new tax rate.

Wacks said that because both the ceiling and the tax rate are "solely in the control of the council," removing it might make sense.

Since legislation passed in May won't take effect until July, the start of the new budget year, the bill must be introduced now to allow the option of a fire tax increase.

"Why have it [the ceiling]?" said C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat. "I think there may be some [tax] increase."

Because the bill was submitted too late for introduction Monday, four of the five council members must agree to suspend the filing rules - meaning at least one of the council's two Republicans must go along.

The Republicans, Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican, and Christopher J. Merdon of Ellicott City, said they haven't decided what they will do.

"I'm not excited about raising any tax," Kittleman said, adding that he's not making assumptions about Robey's intentions, for now.

"I think they want to keep all their options open, and I can't blame them," he said.

The general property tax rate is now $1.044 cents per $100 of assessed value. The fire tax is also a property tax; western county residents pay 8.8 cents per $100 of assessed value, while easterners pay 10.8 cents under the state's new 100 percent assessment system.

Though the ceiling on the fire tax is 28 cents per $100 of assessed value, it would still need to be removed to allow a tax increase to allow for the difference in the way corporate real property is assessed.

"The rate needs to be what it needs to be. Right now, I think it's more of a flexibility issue," Merdon said.

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