The future of Frederick County’s career and volunteer fire and rescue services has dominated the county’s budget process for the past eight months, along with a debate over how much money to provide for the county’s public schools.
“This budget has been all about fire and rescue,” Commissioners’ President Blaine R. Young said Thursday before the board voted to approve an increased property tax rate inflated by the board’s decision to move the county’s formerly separate fire tax into its general fund.
The commissioners are scheduled to vote on the county’s $516 million proposed budget for fiscal 2014 on June 6.
The new property tax rate of $1.064 per $100 of assessed value is an increase from the fiscal 2013 rate of $0.936.
The commissioners approved the new rate by a vote of 4-1.
Commissioner David Gray (R) opposed the measure, saying he didn’t think it was necessary to move the fire tax into the general fund, and that keeping it separate made it easier for people to get an idea what is being spent.
The county’s two-tiered fire tax system established in 2001 divides the county into urban districts, which receive 24-hour coverage, and suburban districts that receive paid coverage on evenings and weekends.
The urban fire district, which pays a tax rate of 12.8 cents per $100 of assessed value, consists of the entire county except for Brunswick, Middletown, Lewistown, Walkersville and Thurmont. Those areas currently pay 8 cents per $100 of assessed value.
Under the new plan, all county residents will pay the equivalent of the 12.8 cents rate.
Bringing the entire county under one rate provides stability for homeowners by limiting how much their rates can rise under the homestead property tax credit, Young said.
Previously, someone’s fire tax could fluctuate sharply depending on whether their home’s assessed value increased or decreased by a lot, he said.
Commissioner Kirby Delauter (R) said he agreed with Gray that a separate fund makes it easier for residents to account for what’s being spent, and he had initially been undecided on whether to move the fire tax into the general fund.
But Delauter said he decided to support the move because of the chance for the homestead tax credit to apply, and because of the predictability it gave the fire and rescue services to be able to plan for how much money they’ll get.
The county’s fire service is a mix of volunteer and paid crews, with the professional staff generally providing coverage at many stations during the weekdays and volunteers handling duties on evenings and weekends with some paid help.
While the property tax rate went up, Delauter argued that the board hadn’t actually raised taxes because residents in the suburban areas were already paying the extra money because the deficits in the fire tax funds under the old system were being subsidized from other county funds.
“They were paying the tax anyway. They just didn’t know it,” Delauter said.
If the county hadn’t added the fire tax into the general fund, the county’s tax rate would have been about two cents below the constant yield rate — the rate authorized by the state to ensure that a county or municipality receives the same amount of revenue from year to year, County Budget Officer Regina Howell said Thursday.
County residents expect fire service, just as they do service from the sheriff’s office, schools and other county services, Young said.
By adopting the tax rate Thursday, the county is essentially finalizing the amount it can provide to the Frederick County Board of Education, which has asked for $15 million more than the commissioners have said they’ll provide, said Commissioners’ Vice President C. Paul Smith (R).
As the economy turns around, Smith said he’ll look more closely at what the county can do to provide additional money for education, but does not think the county will be able to provide anywhere near the amount the school board is looking for in this budget.
“That does not mean that anybody is throwing in the towel on the level of education that we intend to offer,” Smith said.
Young said he also looks forward to working with the school board to find more money for education, but the county couldn’t fund $15 million in recurring costs with the fire costs and other county expenses.
“Everybody wanted money,” Young said. “I haven’t found anyone who didn’t want money.”