Trash-fee revenue falling short

fire tax headed same way

With general rate cut proposed, dilemma looms

March 16, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

When he proposed a $125-a-house trash fee nine years ago, Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker offered a slight property tax cut to soften the blow, though he later dropped the idea.

Now, as county officials consider a possible general tax cut, the trash fee is no longer raising enough money to pay its way, and the county's dedicated fire tax isn't far behind.

The trends put county officials in an awkward position as they prepare a budget for the fiscal year that will start July 1. Should the county raise specialty taxes when general tax rates might go down? Or should general fund revenues be used to subsidize trash and fire services?

"We're still looking at all the revenue projections. There are no answers yet," said County Executive James N. Robey, who is to release his proposed operating budget April 18.

Disposing of Howard County's trash is projected to cost about $2 million more than the trash fee will raise this budget year. That is not counting the additional $3.6 million the county expects to lose on recycling.

The fire tax fund, fueled by a separate property tax dedicated to pay for fire and emergency medical services, should show a $1 million surplus this year, county officials said. But the tax might not pay all the department's expenses for the fiscal year that will start July 1 because requests are up $5.7 million

Howard residents pay a trash fee of $125 a household and differing fire property tax rates depending on where they live. People in the eastern county served by public water and sewerage pay 12.55 cents per $100 of assessed value, and those in the rural west, using wells and septic systems, pay 10.55 cents.

Revenues from each area are spent for services in that fire district, said Raquel Sanudo, the chief county administrative officer. The rate was last increased in fiscal 2002.

Robey said the county has had to assign more paid firefighters to western county stations because of a shortage of volunteers. That, along with inflation and added pressures after the 2001 terrorist and anthrax attacks, are forcing fire budgets higher.

Budget officials estimated Fire Department expenses this year at $34,968,528 for the heavily populated eastern county and $5,557,568 for the rural west.

Income, which includes the tax revenue and funds left over from previous years, totals $35,837,734 for the eastern county, and $5,709,640 for the west.

The Fire Department has requested $39,354, 551 for the eastern county for next year and $6,771,311 for the west.

"The current year, we're going to be cutting things close, but I think we'll be OK," said county Fire Chief Joseph A. Herr.

The department plans to hire a recruit class in April to fill 21 vacancies and to add 10 people mainly to provide emergency medical services, which is the Fire Department's main task.

"This is kind of a challenging time for us because we need to bring people in," Herr said.

James M. Irvin, the county public works director, said the trash fee brings in about $11 million but that the county is spending $13 million this year to dispose of trash. Last year, Irvin said, the shortfall was about $1 million.

The recycling program operates separately, with sales of paper and other materials producing about $310,000 in revenue. The total program cost is $4 million a year.

"Yard waste is killing us," Irvin said, because collection costs for labor and fuel are increasing but the waste produces little return. It is removed to a composing facility in Prince George's County.

County Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a western county Republican who was in office when the trash fee was imposed, said he would not vote to increase it. "We did that [fee] with a lot of aggravation and heart-wrenching decisions. I would not go any further on a user tax," he said.

Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said he was never in favor of the separate trash fee. "I thought it should have gone into the general fund in the first place," he said. Guzzone was a special assistant to Councilwoman Shane E. Pendergrass when the trash fee was enacted.

"I don't expect anything to be done with the fire tax," Guzzone said.

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