Fire tax bill could raise $1.8 million, Howard officials say

A bill proposed by the Howard County executive would eliminate a two-tiered fire tax system and could garner about $1.8 million in revenue, county officials said.

Howard, unlike the rest of Maryland, has two fire tax rates: one for the more densely populated eastern part of the county and another, which costs 2 cents less, for the more rural west. Some western residents say the current system is fair because they benefit less from county services.

But County Executive Ken Ulman says the west receives the same fire service as the east and should pay the same rate — as western residents do for other county services, such as school and police.

Ulman has not released a rate, saying it should be discussed in the context of the overall budget.

However, Ray Wacks, the county's budget administrator, said a 2-cent annual increase in the rural rate could generate $1,834,478 for the county. The rate increase would add $70 to a taxpayer's annual bill if he or she owns a home valued at $350,000, Wacks said.

Residents can testify on the bill before the County Council at a public hearing Monday. The measure is scheduled for a vote on March 29.

Some opponents of the bill — including Councilman Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican who represents the western part of the county — argue that the bill is unfair.

"I'm not willing to raise the fire tax to make it an equal district type of thing unless there is a compromise" such as a tax credit for western residents, he said, adding that homeowner's insurance in the west is higher because homes are farther from fire stations.

Members of the Lisbon Volunteer Fire Co. oppose a single rate, saying it's an unfair burden on western residents, who not only pay for the county's professional firefighters but also contribute money to the west's volunteer departments.

"There's no reasoning behind this tax rate change," said Kenny Livesay, a volunteer with the Lisbon fire company who also lives in Lisbon.

Councilman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, said he would "definitely be willing to keep an open mind and listen to the rationale" behind the county executive's plan.

Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Democrat representing Columbia, said she had not made up her mind, but added, "I'm certainly looking very seriously at" the bill.

The fire tax is tied to property assessments, which have declined during the prolonged economic slump. The county collected $68.9 million in 2010 from the fire tax but only about $66.3 million last year.

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