Council OKs introduction of fire property tax bill

Robey says measure would provide more options to raise funds

Public hearing April 16

Howard County

April 03, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The County Council unanimously approved last night the introduction of a bill to eliminate the ceiling on the fire property tax.

The council had to act because the Robey administration was late in submitting the bill for introduction.

The bill needed four votes for approval, and the council's two Republicans joined with the three-member Democratic majority.

County Executive James N. Robey and council members have said that removing the ceiling would give the county more options for raising money to fund the Department of Fire and Rescue Services, but that doesn't mean a tax increase is automatic.

Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon said he will push to set a higher ceiling before any consideration of actually raising the fire tax.

"I just want something that gets us through the next two years," Merdon said. Raising the ceiling rather than eliminating it, he said, would create an added psychological barrier to raising the tax rate. The council will hear public comment on the bill April 16 and vote on removing or raising the ceiling May 7.

Unlike most area counties, Howard maintains a separate, two-tiered property tax solely to support fire and rescue services. The county has two fire tax districts and charges a higher rate for those who live in the more populous eastern county that is served by public water and sewers. Robey has said he wants the tax ceiling removed as one way to cover the $4.7 million increase in spending that the fire department has requested.

He is due to unveil his operating budget request April 17.

In other business last night, the council approved an enhanced pension system for county police and a series of amendments to a zoning law bill.

The council then tabled the zoning bill until May to allow more time for discussion about creating a new zoning category for senior-citizen housing.

One amendment scrapped proposed restrictions on the expansion plans of large churches. County officials noted a year-old federal law, called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the meaning of which has not been settled in case law. The law seeks to protect houses of worship from undue land-use regulation.

"I think we need to take another look at this to protect neighborhoods and residential areas as well as churches who want to expand," said C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat.

Council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel/Savage Democrat, agreed.

The police pension bill would give Howard's 345 officers the most lucrative plan in the area, allowing officers to retire after 20 years, and those with 25 years service to retire with 75 percent of their annual salary. The police will contribute 4 percent more per year to help pay for the extra benefits. The law will take effect in January, but any officers planning to leave within the first three months must give 60 days notice to prevent a sudden mass retirement.

Also last night, the Robey administration introduced a bill that would change the way the county enforces the law banning tobacco sales to minors. Instead of county police enforcing criminal law violations, the county will use tobacco lawsuit settlement money to hire a Health Department inspector to issue civil citations to store owners accused of violations.

The bill is similar to one sponsored last year in the General Assembly by state Sen. Martin G. Madden. That bill failed after Robey opposed it, on grounds that the county couldn't afford the inspectors needed for enforcement. Herman Charity, Robey's legislative liaison, said that changed this year, when tobacco settlement money became available.

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