When I published my article “Howard County Spending Affordability Advisory Committee Report Released” I said that I would write about some specific sections of the report…and this is my first one. I am looking at the section relating to “Fire and Rescue Fund – Ambulance Fee & Fire Tax” (listed under the Revenue section on pages 6 and 7 of the report). Here is how that section reads:

Fire and Rescue Fund – Ambulance Fee & Fire Tax: The Committee is pleased that the County has adopted its recommendation to implement an ambulance/EMS transport fee in FY 2020. Currently, Howard County is the only jurisdiction in the state that does not impose the fee. The fee reimburses the Department of Fire and Rescue Services for medical services rendered and is paid by private insurance companies and other providers. The County has taken steps to ensure that emergency medical services rendered to residents and non-residents in the county remains consistent and a commitment to efficient and effective medical care will remain the Department’s highest priority. The fee is expected to generate approximately $3 million in revenues in the Fire and Rescue Fund.

While the Department has taken this step forward, revenues generated by the fee will not be enough to sustain the needs of the Department moving forward. As presented by the Budget Office and the Fire Department, there is a structural imbalance between revenues and expenditures, causing a -$7 million deficit in the Fire and Rescue Fund at the end of FY 2020 and growing to approximately -$158 million by FY 2025. The last increase to the Fire and Rescue Tax was implemented in FY 2013. Since then, the
Department has opened and staffed the Glenwood Station, added support to the Lisbon Fire Station, and is set to open, equip, and staff the Merriweather Station and the Waterloo Station. The Department is also planning on opening a station in North Columbia in FY 2023 that will require staffing and equipment. The Department’s growth is a direct response to the growth of the County. The Department has already reached a breaking point and the tax increase is required. The Committee is recommending that the County increase the Fire and Rescue Tax rate to a level that is necessary for the Department to keep up with the demands of the County through FY 2025 and beyond. The Committee is also recommending that the County and the Department create a long-term plan projecting critical needs for sections of the County that are known to be experiencing revitalization and population growth, ensuring that this tax rate increase will cover the needs of those areas without a further adjustment to the tax in foreseeable future.

Here are some of my notes:

On the “the County has adopted its recommendation to implement an ambulance/EMS transport fee in FY 2020″…this is Council Bill 9 before the Howard County Council now. I did a post on it recently…check it out HERE. I expect that to pass easily this year. 3 million dollars into this fund will be hard to pass up…especially when this will not directly cost the residents of THIS county money.

On the “there is a structural imbalance between revenues and expenditures, causing a -$7 million deficit in the Fire and Rescue Fund at the end of FY 2020 and growing to approximately -$158 million by FY 2025″…holy cow that looks like a BIG number. I would even say a shocking number. I really need to get more data on this from the budget office or Fire and Rescue. The charts above are nice to look at…but do not tell the full story of what the incoming or outgoing funds look like or how the fund changes year over year based on those numbers…and I checked the 2019 budget document and did not see it directly referenced in it either. More research for me to do when I have some free time.

On the “The last increase to the Fire and Rescue Tax was implemented in FY 2013″…I found an old HoCo Rising article on this topic from back in 2012…read it HERE. Given the estimated structural imbalance between revenues and expenditures…I wonder how much this rate may be raised in the next budget? If the recommendation of “ensuring that this tax rate increase will cover the needs of those areas without a further adjustment to the tax in foreseeable future“…this may be a hefty tax increase.

So the committee states “Preliminary projections from the County indicate that to keep Fire Fund from going into insolvency over the next several years requires a fire tax increase combined with a new ambulance (EMS) fee. The Committee supports these actions.” in their “Key Solutions” section on page 4 of the report.

I want to mention again…these are recommendations from the committee to the County Executive. He has the final say in his budget which recommendations he will take and implement and which recommendations he will not in the upcoming budget.

So much more to dig through in this report…and I will have one or two additional articles on sections of the report…so stay tuned.

Scott E

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