Howard County eliminates two-tier fire tax

All Howard County residents will pay the same rate for fire services, the council decided Thursday night in a move that brings Howard in line with the rest of the state.

The bill, introduced March 5 at the request of County Executive Ken Ulman, will eliminate separate tax rates for the more populated eastern part of the county and the rural western end, which traditionally has paid less. Howard is the only county in Maryland to have two rates to fund fire services.

"We are one county and we are providing the same level of service," said Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, before casting her vote in favor of the bill.

Ulman has said that fire service in the west has improved in recent years and noted that county residents share the same fees for police, trash, schools and other government services. The administration has not proposed a new rate; Ulman said it should be discussed in the context of the overall budget.

Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Columbia Democrat, also voted for the bill, saying that if the expectation of service is the same, all residents should pay the same rate.

Opponents of the change, including members of the Lisbon Volunteer Fire Company, have argued that the two-tiered system is fair because residents in the west already provide support and donations for fire departments that rely on mostly volunteer members.

But Fire Chief William F. Goddard III argued that fire stations across the county — not just those in the west — use volunteers. And, he said, "We've had tremendous improvements countywide."

Councilman Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, was the only council member who opposed the single rate, though he said he recognized that improvements have been made. He had said previously that he would oppose the bill because it would hurt residents in the west, who must pay more for homeowners insurance because they are farther from fire stations.

Residents in the eastern portion of the county pay 13.55 cents for $100 of assessed property value, while residents in the west pay 2 cents less.

If residents in the west were required to pay the same as those in the east, the county would see a $1.8 million increase in revenue, county officials said.

The single rate will go into effect July 1.

The tiered tax system dates to 1955. It was amended in 1993 to reduce the number of jurisdictions to two.

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