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Commissioners candidates weigh merits of proposed fire tax

November 30, 1999|By TARA REILLY

A recent proposal by Del. Robert A. McKee for a fire tax in Washington County is drawing mixed reviews from candidates running for Washington County Commissioners.

Of the 10 candidates challenging for five open seats, two incumbent commissioners oppose a tax, while another candidate said a fire tax should be a last resort. Two candidates said they favor a tax, two others said it was too early to make a decision and another criticized new taxes, but said he was willing to listen to what the local fire and rescue association had to say.

Candidates John F. Barr, a Republican, and Kristin B. Aleshire, a Democrat, could not be reached for comment.

The election is Tuesday.

'A huge task'

Republican William J. Wivell, an incumbent, loudly criticized McKee for the proposal.

"I don't think McKee would be proposing another tax if he had competition in the upcoming election," said Wivell, saying that candidates don't win elections "based on a promise to increase taxes."

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McKee has said he brought the issue up now because it should be an issue in the County Commissioners race. He is running unopposed in Tuesday's election.

Glenn Fuscsick, president of the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, has said he supports what he calls a fire fee because the companies receive little financial support from the homes and businesses they service. Fundraising efforts by volunteers take time away from training, he said.

Wivell, 42, said he doesn't support a fire tax at this time. He would prefer the county look at increasing money to the companies through its general fund before passing a tax.

And if the county stepped up funding ? as though they were county departments ? he said fire and rescue mergers would need to be discussed, as well as standardizing equipment for the companies.

"It's just a huge task," Wivell said. "You need these plans in place before you instituted another tax."

Wivell also criticized McKee's suggestion that the money the fire and rescue association receives from the county's gaming fund be given to other charitable organizations. He said that money, which is about $2 million per year, should stay with the companies.

Wivell equated McKee's suggestion with increasing taxes by $2 million to fund nonprofit groups.

"I'm disappointed that McKee (would) propose a tax without even talking to the commissioners," he said.

The accountability issue

Incumbent Commissioner James F. Kercheval, on the other hand, offered no harsh words for McKee.

But before a fire tax seriously is considered, Kercheval, a Republican, said a foundation needs to be in place to ensure efficient company operations, that the money would be fairly allocated and that the companies are accountable for the money.

"We still have a ways to go before we would enact it," said Kercheval, 41.

"You don't just pass a tax without safeguards to make sure money is being spent correctly ..." Kercheval said. "That will be a challenge to the next board."

As the county grows and becomes more urban, Kercheval said fire and rescue agencies will need more money to adapt to the changes.

J. Herbert Hardin, a Democrat and former Washington County Board of Education member, said a fire tax should be considered as a last resort.

He suggested that the new board of commissioners announce to residents and businesses that they will be given a one-year grace period in which the fire and rescue association could solicit donations. If the donations remain low, then the county should move toward a tax.

"Make it clear that if they can't do it through (voluntary donations), then we should go ahead" with considering a tax, said Hardin, 71.

Commissioner John C. Munson, an incumbent, said he opposed a fire tax at this time. Creating another tax isn't necessary unless fire and ambulance companies had no volunteers and needed paid employees, he said.

He also said county residents already are paying enough taxes.

"At this time, I don't think it's necessary," said Munson, 65. "It may be down the road when you don't have any volunteers. Right now, I don't foresee a problem. Leave it like it is."

Munson said he thought the commissioners and the Washington County Gaming Commission were doing a good job funding fire and rescue companies.

"Things seem to be going pretty well as far as fire and ambulance protection goes," Munson said.

A tax or a fee?

Candidate Paul L. Swartz, a Democrat and former commissioner, said he would support a fire tax if elected "because a very small percentage of our residents contribute to the fire companies."

He said businesses contribute even less to the companies.

"If everybody would contribute 100 percent, we wouldn't even be talking about this," said Swartz, 68.

Should a fire tax be passed, stipulations would come with it for the companies to abide by, he said.

Like Swartz, Democrat N. Linn Hendershot said he supports a fire tax, which he would rather call an emergency services fee.

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