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Budget Cuts, Tax Change for Fire & Rescue

Scott Zuke

(4/24) Some county residents could see higher taxes as the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) moves forward with a proposed 2014 budget that would absorb the dedicated fire tax back into the general fund to help close a structural deficit and stabilize emergency service funding. Under the proposal fire & EMS services will be viewed as a county wide service just like education, police, public works, etc.. The Volunteer Fire Company Association voted unanimously to support the county move.

Under the current system, fire districts classified as "urban" pay $0.128 per $100 of assessed property value for fire and rescue services, while suburban districts, which are more reliant on volunteer fire companies, pay $0.08. The new plan would consolidate both rates into the general fund by increasing the property tax by the higher urban rate, meaning no net change for urban district residents, but a 4.8 cent rate hike for most of the rest of the county.

Whether a residence is within the urban or suburban districts depends on which ambulance service would be dispatched first to the location, and whether that service is staffed 6 a.m.-6 p.m. on weekdays or 24/7. Emmitsburg pays for 24/7 ambulance coverage, so residents pay the higher urban rate, but Thurmont is weekday only coverage, so it pays the suburban rate.

Since northern Frederick County relies entirely on volunteer fire companies, the "fire tax" is a bit of a misnomer, according to Tim Clarke, president of Emmitsburg's Vigilant Hose Company.

"The fire tax they see on their bill is truly an EMS tax for an ambulance company, and none of that comes to the fire company," Clarke said, adding that he hopes the change to the tax structure will help to alleviate some residents' confusion at tax time.

"I think people need to understand that while we receive an operational budget from the company to make sure we have fuel in the trucks and heat in the building, the majority of the funds needed to sustain us comes from fundraising and support of the community."

The proposed 2014 budget, which will be presented at a public hearing on May 7, also seeks over $1 million in budget cuts from the Division of Fire and Rescue Services, to be achieved through eliminating several paid staff positions throughout the county. At the same time the County added an additional $600,000 in the budget to support the efforts of volunteer companies.

The cuts will require more volunteers to pick up the slack and avoid response delays in the affected districts, but northern Frederick County will be insulated due to its all-volunteer fire service.

"There will be no impact in service whatsoever, either on the fire or EMS side," Clarke said.

A broader shift from paid staff to greater reliance on volunteers would be welcomed by Rocky Ridge Volunteer Fire Company President Dale Kline.

"The best thing we can do in Frederick County is try to keep volunteer fire companies and ambulances where they can manage to run strictly by volunteers," Kline said. "Unfortunately I don't believe there are any ambulance companies run by volunteers anymore."

Recruiting and training volunteers remains a long-term goal of the county, according to Doug Orner, Director of the Frederick County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association.

"As long as we're able to maintain the service levels with volunteers, that's a definite plus for all taxpayers, and that's what the intent is, so that the commissioners don't have to increase taxes going forward," Orner said.

He says the main challenge with volunteer recruitment is retention, as the amount of training required can be prohibitive to those trying to balance work and family obligations. County officials are considering plans that would grant incentives to the volunteer companies in order to entice additional membership.

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