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Council to study fire tax

August 17, 2005|By GREGORY T. SIMMONS

HAGERSTOWN

gregs@herald-mail.com

Hagerstown Fire Department engines often are sent to fires with a single firefighter who must drive the vehicle, unload equipment and fight the fire, Hagerstown Fire Chief Gary Hawbaker told the City Council Tuesday.

Making sure there is more than one person on every engine that goes to a fire is a costly proposition, Hawbaker said.

Hawbaker said Tuesday it might cost another $900,000 to $950,000 in annual costs to the city to pay for the 21 firefighters needed to ensure that two firefighters ? one driver and one passenger ? ride on every engine.

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That would translate roughly to a tax increase of between 4 cents and 5 cents per $100 of assessed real estate value, Hawbaker said during the City Council work session. For a $150,000 home inside city limits, the annual tax bill would increase $60 to $75.

The City Council authorized a more in-depth look into the possibility of creating a special taxing district allowed under state law.

This year, the Maryland General Assembly took action to allow jurisdictions like Hagerstown to create special taxing districts in order to collect money specifically for fire, police and rescue services. The money could be used for wages, equipment and construction, Hawbaker said.

If the city pursues the tax district plan, questions of how large a tax district would be or how many there would be will need to be answered. One option, City Attorney Mark Boyer said Tuesday, is to create a tax district that is the exact size of city limits.

Boyer described that option as "somewhat illogical" because it restricts the way money would be spent. For instance, it would be similar to a general property tax but could only be spent on items related to the fire department.

Councilman Lewis C. Metzner saw a bright side to the citywide tax district idea.

"Politically, it might be much easier to sell a very large special taxing district for a fire tax" that couldn't be used for anything else, Metzner said.

Councilwoman Penny M. Nigh called on city officials to make an effort to communicate the problem to the public.

"They don't know that we're short men on our firetrucks," Nigh said. "God forbid it takes something really dramatic" to get things done.

Hawbaker said the city is having trouble meeting nationally accepted firefighting standards and the average number of firefighters responding to a fire in the city is seven.

For example, a house fire in one of the neighborhoods near downtown likely would have an incident commander; two engines, each with only the driver; one ladder truck with two firefighters; the utility truck with two or three firefighters; and any number of volunteers available, some of whom respond in personal vehicles.

Hawbaker said a July 15 apartment fire in the 600 block of West Washington Street strained the city's capabilities when responders heard people might be trapped. With the number of firefighters who responded, rescuing victims for a moment took a back seat to fire suppression.

"It's a danger for our firefighters," Hawbaker said.

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