Tax cut gaining council support

Fox's plan to trim fire contingency fund would eliminate 2-cent rate increase

May 23, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

Howard County Councilman Greg Fox has attracted interest from Democratic colleagues for an idea to reduce the proposed fire property tax increase when the council votes at noon today on the county executive's $1.3 billion budget.

Fox, a western county Republican, has proposed cutting $1.6 million from the fire department's rural contingency fund - enough to eliminate an extra 2-cent tax rate increase in the rural parts of the county without directly cutting fire services. The rural area of Howard pays slightly less in fire taxes, which are dedicated for fire department use, on the theory that without public water and sewers, residents there get slightly less in fire services.

The administration of County Executive Ken Ulman contended that raising the tax rate and making it the same countywide would improve services in the west by adding expensive new trucks and facilities and by starting a program to bury 30,000-gallon water tanks to help fight fires - something that could lower homeowners' insurance rates. Ulman's budget also calls for adding 39 more positions to the department and includes a 6 percent pay raise.

Ulman opposes Fox's contingency fund idea as "unwise," according to Joan Lewis Kennedy, his lobbyist. It would leave the department vulnerable to an emergency such as an accident that damages a major piece of equipment, Kennedy said yesterday. Ulman is out of town until Thursday.

If the council adopts Fox's suggestion, the fire tax rate would still rise 1 cent countywide, to 13.55 cents per $100 of assessed value in the east, which is served by public water and sewer lines, and to 11.55 cents in the west. The increase would cost the owner of a home valued at the county median of $450,000 about $45 more a year, according to budget officials.

"I'm doing what I can to keep the rural fire tax down," Fox said. He said there will still be money left for fire contingencies if his cut is adopted. "This is a way to do it without reducing any of the programs."

Council Democrats Mary Kay Sigaty and Chairman Calvin Ball, who both represent Columbia, reacted positively to Fox's idea Monday night, though neither committed to vote for it.

"I think it's built on solid thinking," Sigaty said.

"I'm strongly considering it," Ball said.

Another Democrat criticized the idea, however.

"I have concerns about cutting money out of the contingency fund of the fire department," said Jen Terrasa, who represents the southeastern county.

A pandemic flu outbreak or any emergency could deplete the remainder of the fund if Fox's cut is made, she said.

Fox and Ellicott City Democrat Courtney Watson submitted 22 budget amendments between them, most dealing with Watson's desire to prevent Howard Community College from becoming owner of the historic Belmont estate and conference center in Elkridge.

A brief letter to Ball on Monday from John R. Griffin, secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, urged the council to approve Ulman's plan to provide money for the college to buy Belmont, if only to provide more time to explore the deal Watson wants. Watson would have the state use Program Open Space funds to buy the 68-acre estate and a 13-acre adjoining parcel - both of which are surrounded by Patapsco Valley State Park.

"The conflict is the college wants to develop more of the property than DNR would allow" under Program Open Space restrictions, Watson said.

She was also uncertain how she might vote on Fox's fire tax cut plan, although she has urged the council repeatedly to avoid a tax increase if possible.larry.carson@baltsun.com

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