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A fire tax would require loss of control for local companies

December 03, 2006|by TIM ROWLAND

Say this about Del. Bob McKee. He may be the only politician in history to propose a new tax the week before an election.

Had he been opposed, he might have been more judicious. Even two other unopposed Republicans, Del. Chris Shank and Sen. Don Munson backpedaled from the issue, mumbling something about needing to see more details before deciding one way or the other.

"Need more details" is political code for not wanting to touch it with a 10-foot pole.

And yes, there are some details that need to be addressed, but a fire tax is a fire tax. It's like gun control, you're for it or against it and in theory it shouldn't be to hard to take a side.

So am I for it or against it?

I need to see more details.

No denying, the fire companies have a point. Until the past decade, they'd always gotten scraps from the county and had to perform the majority of their fundraising efforts themselves.


You train, toil and study to become the most professional blaze-battling machine you can be - and then on Friday night you wind up passing a boot.

How many potentially great volunteers have we lost because a young man or woman understandably wants to fight fires and save human lives, not go begging for spare change?

The county's effective tip-jar legislation of the mid-1990s was supposed to remedy that, because it targets about half of the county's gambling take for fire and rescue. Indeed, one of the reasons this bill won support of local lawmakers was because it was supposed to end, once and for all, the every-so-often rumblings for a fire tax.

And it did, for a while. But now the dust has settled, and here we go again.

No doubt, the increased growth and increased traffic have created an added burden for emergency crews. And this is pure speculation, but it stands to reason that some people who used to donate to fire companies stopped writing checks when the tip-jar law passed, because they figured companies now had a dependable revenue stream.

But firefighters say the real problem lies in large commercial establishments that pay little or nothing, even though their big buildings require the departments to buy more expensive and comprehensive equipment.

I take the companies at their word that they're pressed for cash, and anyone who has followed the issue knows that the system is three decades past-due for an overhaul.

The first issue I have with a fire tax is the presumption that somehow fire protection does not fall under the umbrella of county services we are already paying for in our annual tax bills.

Were someone to propose a police tax, what would be the first response? "We already pay taxes for police protection."

And the growth that has strained emergency crews has also fattened the county treasury, which will likely report a multi-million-dollar, year-end surplus. County revenues can expand, but county-provided services such as fire protection cannot?

The second issue is the one I suspect volunteers want to talk about least: Fiscal efficiency and accountability.

There is an excellent chance that we are already spending an adequate amount of money on fire protection for a county our size. But because we have so many departments, so much duplicate equipment and so much overlapping turf, a tremendous amount of this money is effectively wasted.

The problem is, we don't know.

If we're going to enact a fire tax, we had better find out. And I doubt all volunteer companies are going to like the results.

Having to raise your own money is a burden, certainly. But one of the perks is that you get to spend it how you wish. We've left the fire companies alone because, well, it's largely their money.

If it's largely our money, all that changes. Taxpayers should not be asked to pay for three companies within spitting distance of each other. Taxpayers will want to scrutinize each new-equipment purchase to make sure it's not more than is needed, or fancier than is needed.

If there's a fire tax, then the Old Way, in my view, is the price that must be paid. Finances become centralized at the county level. Decisions that used to be a show of hands become a sheaf of paperwork.

Do the volunteers want that? Some probably will, some probable won't. Some departments are probably already better-run and more efficient than county government itself. Some - well, we've seen the headlines.

The crucial thing for commissioners and lawmakers to remember as talks move along, is that this choice must be made. If the county taxes, then the county should take over the system, streamline it and account for every penny in every department.

Under no circumstances should they collect tax money then blindly hand it over to the too-many county departments, saying "buy yourself something nice."

All things come with costs. If fire companies win relief from fundraising chores, the price is this: It's no longer their fire company; it's ours.

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