Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (D) rejected the county council’s bill on councilmanic redistricting, returning it unsigned in March.
In a written explanation delivered to the council on March 15, Ulman said he did not believe the bill improved on the map produced and recommended last year by the Councilmanic Redistricting Commission.
“While members of the county council made strong arguments for several different district boundary alignments, the map presented by the bi-partisan commission, vetted through three public hearings and five work sessions, is better for Howard County as a whole,” he said.
Opposition to the commission’s proposed map came primarily from Dorsey’s Search, whose citizens opposed being moved from District 4 to District 1, and from the Wheatfield and Brampton Hills communities, which opposed being moved from District 1 to District 2.
Despite that opposition, Ulman said the public was significantly engaged in the process. “I believe the Commission’s map ensures that … boundaries are fair and equitable for all of Howard County.”
The redistricting plan became law on March 16.
Also in March, the county executive proposed a bill aimed at eliminating the county’s two-tiered fire tax system in favor of a single countywide rate.
Currently, the tax rate for residents in Howard County’s rural west is 11.55 cents per $100 of assessed property value, as opposed to the rate of 13.55 cents in the more densely populated eastern portion.
County officials argue that both sections of the county receive the same level of service and should pay the same rate — the higher one, of course — which would boost fire tax revenue by about $1.8 million.
The other side of the argument, however, is also rooted in economics.
William Goddard, chief of the Howard County Department of Fire & Rescue Services (DFRS), advocated for the bill at the county council’s March 19 public hearing.
The reason for the two-tiered system dates back to 1992, he said, when Howard County’s General Assembly delegation opposed the establishment of a single rate for the entire county. At that time, Goddard said, the west was served primarily by volunteer crews with limited access to water, while the east was served by professional crews with ready access to hydrants.
“Much has changed since 1992,” he said, chief among them the location of 11 30,000-gallon cisterns in the rural areas of the county.
Four additional cisterns will be installed in the next few months, Goddard said, and eight more have been requested in the fire department’s fiscal 2013 budget.
“It is our goal to continue this capital project until 90 such tanks are installed and each populated square mile in the rural area has an identified water sources dedicated for our use,” he said.
The county is nearing completion of its first Public Fire Protection Classification Study in 16 years, taking into account the addition of career and part-time paid firefighters and paramedics at rural volunteer fire stations, additional resources and the success of educational and training programs.
According to Goddard, results of the study will help reduce insurance premiums for residents and businesses located within five miles of a station.
But whether insurance companies agree remains to be seen, some residents said.
“My insurance company doesn’t ask where the nearest cistern is, they only ask if I have access to a hydrant,” said Gary Ball of Mount Airy. “Folks in the eastern side are getting a break on insurance rates because they’re supplied with a service. [Our] slightly decreased tax rate makes up for some of that and makes the current system more fair.”
Others who opposed scrapping the two-tiered system included Lisbon resident Ivan Betancourt, a member of the Lisbon Volunteer Fire Co. (VFC). “We the citizens that provide this service are going to be hit with a higher tax that is going to hamper our own abilities … to feed our families, clothe our kids and put gas in our tanks,” he said. “We already give our time, now you’re asking for [more] taxes.”
Howie Feaga of Ellicott City supports the bill, but wants to ensure that the revenue it generates is protected from any other budget needs and gets spent wisely. “I feel there’s probably some spending on the metro side that’s unjustified,” he said, citing consulting jobs as an example. “We don’t need to pay people to consult when the people we hired ought to know what they’re doing.”
Of all the fire stations in Howard County, only one — Lisbon — has voted to oppose the fire tax increase.
Goddard noted that the Lisbon station also opposed the construction of a new fire station in Glenwood four years ago and suggested that a reduced geographic fundraising area was the real basis for their divergence.
But Curtis Lowery of Glenwood, also a member of the Lisbon VFC, said his station’s opposition stemmed from the belief that the Glenelg, Dayton and Triadelphia Road area would have been a better geographic location for the new station.
Another Lisbon station member, Kenny Livesay of Cooksville, added that medium assessments in the rural west are approximately 20% higher than assessments in the metropolitan district. “The difference in the tax rate is approximately 15%,” he said. “Per household, the citizens of the rural west are definitely paying their share.”
Carey McIntosh, chief of the Lisbon VFC, informed the council that his station took its stand against the fire tax bill because the citizens it serves have voiced opposition to it.
All the same, said Mickey Day, chief of the West Friendship Volunteer Fire Department, the number of emergency incidents is increasing, as are expenses for fuel, utilities and equipment.
“The merging of the two rates signifies that we are one county, one combination fire department which provides citizens with the same quality of service no matter where they live,” he said.
“We need to remember that it’s not just fire,” said Richard Ruehl, president of the Howard County Fire Fighters Union, who advocated for the tax rate increase. “Nearly 80% of our call volume is related to emergency medical services. If the lack of fire hydrants … or the larger property size of the west as compared to the east is causing you concern, we encourage you to look at it in a different way.”
Following a March 26 work session devoted to the fire tax bill, the county council was expected to vote on the legislation on March 29, too late for the result to be included in this edition of The Business Monthly.