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Time for serious talks on countywide fire tax

November 09, 2006

When Washington County Del. Robert A. McKee proposed a county fire tax less than a month before the election, the cautious reaction of other elected officials and candidates was predictable.

However, caution should not be an excuse for inaction, as it has been here for decades. Yes, as state Sen. Donald F. Munson said, we'd all like to see a bill, because specifics are important.

But just because McKee hasn't provided every little detail doesn't mean there shouldn't be a discussion of the financial needs of the county's fire and rescue companies.

And let's be blunt: We don't need another study of the issue. In 1991, Focus Inc., a strategic planning group made up of concerned citizens found that a declining pool of volunteers coupled with rising costs were putting a severe strain on companies' finances.

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In June 1998, the county government paid $90,000 for a 300-plus-page study of the fire/rescue service, a study which avoided the issue of a fire tax.

Dissatisfied, the commissioners asked the consultant to address that issue and an updated report, issued in October 1999, endorsed a fire tax, but didn't say how much it should be.

By December 2000, the county's Emergency Services Council decided that before recommending a fire tax, the county should help coordinate a countywide fund drive for all companies.

If that didn't work, said then-Commissioner Bert Iseminger, then the county would consider other fundraising measures. But nothing of the sort happened.

In all of this, no one has questioned the premise that more money is needed. Yes there will have to be greater accountability and probably a reallocation of tip-jar cash. But we can't say this strongly enough: Just because we don't have all the answers now is no reason to postpone action for another 20 years.

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