Frederick County residents could pay more in fire taxes
Commissioners look at cutting back on paid firefighters
Frederick County residents soon might pay more in taxes for fewer firefighters and rescue workers.
The Frederick Board of County Commissioners voted Tuesday night to have a task force look at eliminating between 18 and 34 full-time firefighter positions now unfilled because of a hiring freeze and enacting a countywide fire tax residents would pay for fire service.
Under the proposal, all residents would pay between 15 to 17 cents per $100 of assessed property value.
A county-wide fire tax has been debated by commissioners for years as a way to generate more money for fire service. The county currently uses a two-tiered fire taxing system urban and suburban to help pay salaries and benefits for firefighters and rescue workers.
The urban district includes Emmitsburg, Frederick, Green Valley, Jefferson, Libertytown, Myersville, Point of Rocks and Urbana. Residents in those areas pay a fire tax rate of 12.8 cents per $100 of assessed property value.
The suburban tax district includes Brunswick, Lewistown, Middletown, Thurmont and Walkersville. Residents in those areas pay a fire tax rate of 8 cents per $100 of assessed property value.
The urban fire tax pays for fire and rescue coverage 24 hours per day. Stations in the suburban tax district primarily have paid daytime coverage Monday through Friday, enhanced by volunteers at night and on the weekends.
Commissioners are considering the changes because they need to eliminate a projected $5.6 million shortfall in fire tax revenue in fiscal 2012 and $15.1 million in fiscal 2013, before a new board takes office on Dec. 1.
The board also asked the task force to look into applying for special grants and to put together a list of excess fire and rescue equipment that could be sold for cash.
Commissioners also want to improve the way the county manages its fire service, which has been an ongoing source of debate for years.
"What we hear is that We don't want you to cut any services or raise taxes,' but we're trying to look at some other service to save money," said Commissioners' President Jan H. Gardner (D).
In March, the board asked Thomas W. Owens, director of the county's Division of Fire and Rescue Services, to assemble a task force of volunteer and paid firefighters to come up with options to eliminate the deficit.
During the past few weeks, commissioners have been looking at four options outlined by the task force in a 77-page document, "Alternative Service Delivery Task Force."
The report states the shortfall cannot be eliminated without significant reductions in staffing. Four options are proposed that would reduce staffing at fire and rescue stations and move personnel to other stations.
Each option would eliminate a different number of firefighters between 18 and 88 thus saving different sums of money between $1.3 million and $6.34 million.
In the end, commissioners decided to ask the task force take 30 days to look closer at options three and four.
Option three eliminates 34 full-time firefighters and recommends the county set up nine regional fire stations or "Regional Response Stations" to help the smaller, all-volunteer stations respond to calls.
This system is used by Baltimore County to handle its fire service, and would improve the response time to fire and rescue calls.
Option four would eliminate 18 full-time firefighter positions, saving the county $1.3 million. There is no reduction in ambulance coverage and no fire station in the county will be without some paid personnel.
Reductions will occur at Middletown Volunteer Fire Company, Libertytown Volunteer Fire Company and the Jefferson Volunteer Fire Company. This option has the least impact on response times and service to residents, according to the report.
But it will mean an increase in fire taxes since fewer positions will be eliminated, Gardner said.
During the past three meetings, the discussion on eliminating the deficit has evolved into a debate at times heated on ways to improve fire service. Behind the scenes has been an ongoing conflict between paid and volunteer firefighters.
The Frederick County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association and the Frederick County Career Firefighters Association Local 3666 all part of the special task force had a chance to speak Tuesday night.
"What I see is that the budget has put us at the table," said Micky Fyock, president of the volunteer fire and rescue association. "The budget has forced us to this table and this may set the future for Frederick County."
The volunteer fire and rescue association voted in favor of option four, Fyock said.
The career firefighters association does not support any option, said John Neary, president.
"We don't support any options that require layoffs," Neary said. "This is our livelihood. ... We're out there doing our job, because of the lack of volunteers. You can keep firing and laying off firefighters, but eventually there won't be anybody left. Then what are you going to do?"