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Fire and rescue report calls for changes

February 13, 2001|By SCOTT BUTKI

Fire and rescue report calls for changes



A report released Tuesday contains recommendations for changes to the Washington County fire and rescue system that could cost more than $2 million dollars but doesn't suggest where the money might come from.

The Emergency Services Council's 18-page report with an 18-page appendix makes more than 100 recommendations stemming from a review of an extensive report prepared by a consultant in 1998 and 1999.

The council's report saves the two biggest tasks for the County Commissioners:

-- Prioritizing the recommendations.

-- Finding a funding source for these changes and whether to impose a fire tax.

The Emergency Services Council felt it should leave funding decisions to the county's funding authority, which is the County Commissioners, said Council Chairman Bert Iseminger, who is also a County Commissioner.

Of the decision not to address the funding question, Emergency Services Council member Joe Kroboth said, "The council's role was not to determine how but to determine what." Kroboth is chief of the Volunteer Fire Company of Halfway and a deputy engineer for Washington County.

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It was also not the council's place to prioritize the council's recommendations, Iseminger said.

The commissioners got their first look at the report during Tuesday's meeting.

The suggestions to the county include:

-- Buy property for a countywide training facility for use by fire, EMS and law enforcement agencies and then design and construct the facility. Cost of the multi-year project is estimated at $1.8 million. The council does not expect this recommendation to be implemented for at least two years.

-- Help pay for a new emergency services center, which would also serve as an Emergency Operations Center during disasters. The federal government would pick up some of the tab. The cost and location have not been determined.

The current communication center is in the basement of the old District Court building.

There is no expectation that some expensive items, such as the training center, would be funded immediately, Iseminger said. The county might decide it's unnecessary to build such a facility here at all, he said.

The report also contains some administrative requirements for the fire and rescue companies.

"It's a two-way street," Iseminger said. If the county is going to consider spending more money to help Washington County Fire and Rescue Association companies, the companies must agree to accept more county oversight and provide more information.

The report recommends requiring the companies to start filing with the county: Annual financial audits, uniform annual capital and operating budgets and a 10-year apparatus replacement plan, updated every two years. The latter plan requires county endorsement.

The types of financial statements provided to the county now vary, Iseminger said. Some companies compile an apparatus plan but don't generally shared them with the county, he said.

One suggestion for immediate implementation calls for the county to phase in funding for apparatus fuel and utility costs for fire and EMS stations. That would not include such costs for auxiliary buildings and social halls.

The estimated cost is $450,000 per year for 27 stations.

Under the suggestion, the county would pay 25 percent of the cost, or $112,500, for fiscal year 2002, which starts July 1. The amount would increase each year until, by fiscal 2005, the county would pay the full amount of $450,000, and continue to do so in subsequent years.

To ensure smaller companies continue to receive sufficient funds to operate, the report does not call for a change in the approximately $40,000 a year funding the county gives to all companies, Iseminger said.

In October 1999, the council was asked to look at a report by Carroll Buracker and Associates Inc. of Harrisonburg, Va.

That $90,000 study delivered to the county in June 1998 didn't answer some key questions, including whether a fire tax should be instituted.

The commissioners asked the Buracker firm for an addendum, and that 54-page document was delivered in October 1999 at no additional cost.

The Buracker report suggests the county establish a single, countywide taxing district to pay for fire and rescue services. It does not suggest a specific amount for the fire tax.

The County Commissioners have not tried to obtain Maryland General Assembly authority to impose a fire tax.

In the report released Tuesday, the council takes no position on a fire tax.

The council met from January to August 2000 to evaluate more than 120 recommendations made in the two consultant studies. The council's report contains responses to each suggestion. Some council suggestions have been implemented.

After August a sub-committee met to work on turning the council's opinions into a written document, Iseminger said it. It was not finished until this month because of time constraints, he said.

Members reached the goal of finishing and submitting the report before the county begins budget deliberations.

The 15-member committee included seven people representing the fire and rescue sector, seven representing the public at large and Iseminger, an ex-officio member representing the commissioners.

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