Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Next Big Thing: County-wide Fire Tax

Most, if not all, of the political missteps taken by the Ulman Administration over the past year have a common fault:

People in favor of the measure < People against the measure

Well, duh, right?  But it may be slightly more complicated than that.  Presumably, Executive Ulman and his staff would argue that the vocal minority does not properly represent the majority of people who would benefit, however marginally, from the proposed change, whether it be new development, school board changes, or a succession of turf field (which notably has since passed).

Taking a break from "Ken's Fall", the Administration has now proposed another measure that is treacherous at best and presents yet another opportunity for a political slip.  The Fire Tax.

As noted by Andrea Siegel and Jessica Anderson at the Sun, Executive Ulman has asked the County Council to consider legislation that would end the two-tiered fire tax and replace it with a single county-wide rate.  Notably, this was attempted by two previous administrations in 1993 and 1999; both unsuccessful.

First, some background.  The fire tax rates are currently set per $100 assessment at $0.34 $0.14 "metro" and $0.29 $0.12 "rural."  The boundary line can be viewed here (PDF) and seems to split the County just about in half.

Some simple math on a $350,000 home would yield the following taxes:

$1,190 $490 - metro
$1,015 $420 - rural

Notably, Ken Ulman does not want to discuss rates until after the county-wide rate is approved, which makes all the practical sense in the world in terms of budgeting, but recreates the "political formula of doom" noted above.  "Metro" voters have the opportunity to see their fire taxes go down.  "Rural" voters can expect their fire taxes to go up.  Without being able to communicate a likely rate, the motivation is on the side of those subject to a tax increase.  Admittedly, this same motivation would exist even if a rate were available, but as of now it is just some haunting spectre that allows any Western Howard County activist to tell residents that they are going to pay "hundreds" more if this tax passes.  In all likelihood, the real outcome will be a change of about $80 for the average homeowner, but this is hard to say in light of the size of your average Western HoCo home.

Similarly, there is no way to tell Metro homeowners how much they have to gain from this shift.  It would be politically unwise and dishonest to use the same tactics as an activist (i.e., "You'll save hundreds!"), but the prospect for lowering taxes for metro homeowners is probably the only way the political out-cry (come next week) will be countered.  You also have the opportunity to avoid the label of "raising taxes" when you present the true picture of leveling.

The best way for the Ulman administration to make sure this is not Groundhog day for last Fall is to get out in front of this storm with data:

1) What were the comparable expenditures for fire between metro and rural districts (last 5 years)?
2) How many fires requiring response were there between the two districts (last 5 years)?
3) What is a likely county-wide rate?
4) Is this net positive, neutral, or negative for the County?  

Without this data, you are abdicating its collection to those who make propaganda and fear-monger.  I think Western Howard Countians have every right and every motivation to oppose a county-wide tax, but the Ulman folks have an obligation to make this an educated debate.  Otherwise you will lose again.  And it will be embarrassing.