Carroll's growth tests emergency resources

Need to pay safety personnel will be costly

October 02, 2005|By MARY GAIL HARE | MARY GAIL HARE,SUN REPORTER

When a rowdy group of motorbikers began buzzing her Sykesville neighborhood, Camilla Buczek called the cops - but nobody came.

It was a question of geography. Sykesville's police said that the errant bikers were outside the town limits. The police in neighboring Howard County deferred to Carroll authorities. But Carroll's primary law enforcement force, the state police, was not patrolling the area.

Her difficulty speaks to a problem for newcomers to Carroll County: With no countywide police force, residents are often unsure whom to call for incidents that don't warrant 911.

"We pay so much in taxes that I just assumed we had county police and fire departments," said Buczek, who moved to Sykesville nearly two years ago.

The county has neither.

In a situation increasingly common across America, where suburban sprawl gobbles up rural areas and their country ways, rapidly urbanizing Carroll is showing signs of outgrowing its public-safety infrastructure.

Its population has increased by nearly a quarter over the past decade, one of the fastest growth rates in the state. But it still relies on volunteer firefighters, contract paramedics and a patchwork of town police, a sheriff's department and state troopers assigned to the local barracks.

Crime is rare in Carroll's 452 square miles of subdivisions and farms. And volunteers for its 14 fire companies respond promptly to emergencies. But it is the only county in the metro area that lacks its own police department, and one of the largest with an all-volunteer force of firefighters.

As a result of its rapid growth:

Carroll, with almost 170,000 residents, received 55,375 calls to 911 last year for police, fire and medical emergencies, more than double the requests for help from 15 years ago.

The state police, Carroll's primary law enforcement agency since 1974, increasingly focus on homeland security duties. Administrators notified the county two years ago that they would not expand the corps of officers based in the county. There are 1.2 uniformed officers, both state and local, per 1,000 citizens in the county. That is below the two officers per 1,000 citizens recommended by national policing standards.

The average daily population in the county's detention center has doubled over the past decade, and a consultant has recommended that officials begin planning immediately to double the jail's capacity by 2024. On average, the jail housed about 250 inmates, 37 short of its capacity, last year.

Fire companies report increasing difficulty in recruiting volunteers and raising money. One company holds a fantasy camp each year, permitting residents to spend a weekend in a firehouse and operate equipment at a training center in the hopes that they will sign up. Firefighter courses are taught at the county's vocational high school.

"But we are not gaining volunteers this way," said Leon M. Fleming, county liaison to the Carroll County Volunteer Emergency Services Association. "We are just keeping up."

Officials have begun talking about forming a countywide police force, and some acknowledge that the days of an all-volunteer fire department are numbered. But the cost to residents is likely to be steep, and resistance fierce.

Doubling the capacity of the jail, for example, comes with a projected price of $80 million. The start-up costs of switching to a professional fire department are estimated at more than $20 million. And while creating a county police force might be cheaper than the $4.3 million the county now pays the state to compensate for its troopers, future growth will drive those costs higher.

Carroll would seem to be able to afford the switch. Spurred in part by the booming housing market, Carroll's operating budget grew by more than $50 million last year to $286 million. The county has posted a surplus for the past three fiscal years, including $13 million in 2005.

"All you have to do is look at the jail population to know we are not in Kansas anymore," said Dean L. Minnich, one of three elected commissioners running the county. "There is a strong feeling that creating a local police force says, `We are acknowledging that we are no longer a rural county.'"

Minnich compared Carroll's cobbled-together policing with racing toward a cliff. "At some point, we have to jump off, and we want something there to catch our fall," he said.

Fire response

Fleming, a retired Baltimore County firefighter who volunteers at the Hampstead station in addition to serving as liaison, said responders are meeting federal emergency standards for response time.

"All the stats say we are OK for now, but we are right at the break-over point," Fleming said.

Fleming said calls have more than tripled since he began volunteering 40 years ago.

"People have little time to volunteer, let alone get training," he said. "That leaves little time for family. Sooner or later, it is gonna break."

Experts say the pressure will only get worse.

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