Advertisement

Fire panel should keep options open

August 12, 2013

The words “fire tax” had barely escaped the lips of Kevin Lewis before the backpedaling began.

Lewis, director of the Washington County Division of Emergency Services, rhetorically asked the commissioners last week, “How much can we continue to sustain in emergency services delivery without some type of cost recovery? That’s always been a big topic.”

But later in the day, the president of the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association said his group was “not proposing, whatsoever, a fire tax.”

A committee, comprised of administrators and fire association members, is currently studying fire and rescue needs in Washington County, and expects to announce its findings in a few months.

If this whole dialogue sounds familiar, it should. Washington County has been putting out fire-tax feelers for 20 years or more — always quickly backing away from their entreaties almost from the moment they were uttered. Indeed, the county has paid for studies that recommended a fire tax, and immediately shelved the studies.

We do not at this point know whether a fire tax is needed or not. But we do know that it needs to be discussed. As the fire and rescue system in this county currently stands, we do not have the luxury of limiting our options right out of the chute.

Moreover, there are hard questions that need to be asked: Can we continue to support the large number of departments in this county without a dedicated fire tax, or will a consolidation of fire halls and equipment be needed? If gambling, not a fire tax, is to be the primary revenue stream, is the county prepared to police the departments to prevent more financial embarrassments, which seem to be part and parcel of handling large, poorly accounted for piles of cash?

We understand that a new tax is nobody’s idea of a good time. But we also understand that we can’t have dependable emergency responders without a dependable source of revenue. When a firetruck is desperately needed, a fire tax might seem a little less burdensome.

Of course there is one other qualifier: If taxpayers are directly funding emergency services, the books of those companies that provide the service must be wide open. No doubt some of the opposition to a fire tax from within the firefighting establishment is a reluctance to open their accounts to public inspection.

It is an understatement to say that the current funding model for fire and rescue is flawed, and we look forward to hearing what ideas the fire committee can proffer to steer a better course.

But no matter what it should ultimately recommend, it should not tie one hand behind its back by refusing to even consider a new flow of tax revenue.

Advertisement
The Herald-Mail Articles
|
|
|