Fire, EMS board mulls tax breaks

At their first meet­ing, mem­bers talk about $1.3 mil­lion in cred­its, im­prove­ments to 911 ra­dio sys­tem

The Enterprise - - Front Page - By TAY­LOR DEVILLE tdev­ille@somd­news.com

The newly formed St. Mary’s County Emer­gency Ser­vices Board held its first meet­ing Wed­nes­day night since the dis­band­ment of the Emer­gency Ser­vices Com­mit­tee in July, dis­cussing ra­dio sys­tem is­sues and a prop­erty tax in­cen­tive for first re­spon­der vol­un­teers.

The ad­vi­sory board will be com­prised of the St. Mary’s fire chief and the emer­gency ser­vices chief, the St. Mary’s County Fire Board As­so­ci­a­tion pres­i­dent, di­rec­tor of the county’s emer­gency ser­vices depart­ment, the St. Mary’s County Am­bu­lance and Res­cue As­so­ci­a­tion chair, one mem­ber from a vol­un­teer fire depart­ment and one from a vol­un­teer res­cue squad. The lat­ter two po­si­tions will soon be elected by the fire board and res­cue as­so­ci­a­tion.

A fo­cus group con­vened sug­gested emer­gency ser­vices vol­un­teers and re­tired vol­un­teers be per­mit­ted to re­ceive up to $1,000. Full-time law en­force­ment per­son­nel, how­ever, are of­fered cred­its of up to $2,500.

The state pol­icy does not de­fine emer­gency ser­vices per­son­nel in the lan­guage of the tax credit bill. A let­ter from the of­fice of Mary­land At­tor­ney Gen­eral Brian Frosh (D) to St. Mary’s del­e­gates stated that “vol­un­teer emer­gency med­i­cal ser­vice providers were not in­tended by the Gen­eral Assem­bly to be in­cluded in the def­i­ni­tion of pub­lic safety of­fi­cers el­i­gi­ble for the tax credit.”

The county in­tends to pro­pose leg­is­la­tion to in­clude emer­gency ser­vices vol­un­teers in the credit, af­ter ju­ris­dic­tion over the credit was passed from the state to lo­cal­i­ties.

“The big ques­tion that’s come up since then … to the vol­un­teer com­mu­nity, [is] that the county was dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing be­tween vol­un­teers, fire and EMS and the sher­iff’s of­fice,” John Nel­son, board mem­ber and fire as­so­ci­a­tion chair, said. “I don’t know that the in­tent was that, but it’s clear based off the num­bers that one is go­ing to get more than another.”

If the leg­is­la­tion is ap­proved, the county could pay an es­ti­mated $412,000 in prop­erty tax credit for sher­iff’s of­fice and Mary­land State Po­lice home­own­ers, based on the num­ber of el­i­gi­ble law en­force­ment of­fi­cers that were recorded in win­ter of last year, Jean­nett Cud­more, St. Mary’s fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer, said.

If the county moved for­ward with the $1,000 credit rec­om­mended for emer­gency ser­vices vol­un­teers, it would pay roughly $937,412 to fire and emer­gency ser­vices vol­un­teers, and $254,000 for re­tired vol­un­teer per­son­nel, to­tal­ing $1.3 mil­lion.

“The rea­sons why there’s a dif­fer­ence is be­cause vol­un­teers can cur­rently re­ceive up to a $4,500 state in­come tax de­duc­tion based on el­i­gi­bil­ity,” Cud­more said. “It was an af­ford­abil­ity kind of a thing … we’re try­ing to fig­ure out how the county can af­ford it.”

A de­ci­sion on the tax credit will be discussed as county gov­ern­ment moves for­ward with fis­cal 2020 bud­get work ses­sions, but the fo­cus group rec­om­mended the credit’s im­ple­men­ta­tion be de­ferred by one year, then pos­si­bly phased in, Cud­more said, ad­ding that the board can con­tinue dis­cussing the credit.

Ra­dio sys­tem up­date discussed

The board also talked about an up­date to the emer­gency ser­vices ra­dio sys­tem, which emer­gency ser­vices di­rec­tor and board mem­ber Stephen Walker will present to the county com­mis­sion­ers for ap­proval at a meet­ing next Tues­day.

If ap­proved, the county would en­act a user agree­ment with Mary­land Fire Ra­dio Sys­tem, a statewide in­ter­op­er­abil­ity sys­tem that would re­place the backup ra­dio sys­tem cur­rently be­ing used by emer­gency ser­vices per­son­nel, ef­fec­tively al­low­ing them to com­mu­ni­cate with other coun­ties in the state, pos­si­bly by next sum­mer.

Walker also up­dated the board on in-build­ing test­ing of the ra­dio sys­tem, re­port­ing that there were “some holes” in sig­nal re­cep­tion in schools, which the depart­ment is work­ing to re­me­di­ate “as quickly as we can,” he said.

“Are there con­cerns? Cer­tainly, but there are no huge blank spots,” he added.

The board discussed co­or­di­nat­ing with Har­ris Corp., the county’s ra­dio sys­tem soft­ware provider, to per­form rou­tine pre­ven­ta­tive main­te­nance to the sys­tem.

“All these ra­dios … we’re try­ing to fin­ish this project, but they’re seven years old,” Walker said.

“There’s se­ri­ous con­cerns” about the sys­tem, Nel­son said.

“We’re talk­ing about a sev­enyear-old ra­dio sys­tem that’s still new,” Shawn David­son, chief of the am­bu­lance and res­cue as­so­ci­a­tion, said. “We’re shak­ing out the old stuff and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the prob­lems that you run into with ag­ing tech­nol­ogy.”

Nel­son pre­vi­ously told The En­ter­prise that is­sues with the sys­tem “go back to 2013,” when the county awarded a con­tract to en­hance emer­gency ra­dio com­mu­ni­ca­tions through an up­graded ra­dio sys­tem. Var- ious prob­lems, like “pag­ing fail­ures to ra­dios not get­ting a sig­nal,” have oc­curred, Nel­son said.

The con­tract added nine more com­mu­ni­ca­tion tower sites through­out the county, and al­lows emer­gency ser­vices to com­mu­ni­cate with any other state agen­cies that op­er­ate on the same sys­tem. Charles and Calvert coun­ties do not yet use the sys­tem, but both have plans to in­stall it, Walker told The En­ter­prise.

“It seems to me this has been a per­pet­ual state of do­ing up­grades,” Walker said dur­ing the meet­ing. “But I am ab­so­lutely com­mit­ted to mak­ing this thing work.”

The group also discussed award­ing $40,000 in schol­ar­ship funds for 28 ap­pli­cants, el­i­gi­bil­ity for the county’s re­tired vol­un­teer length of ser­vice award pro­gram, a revolving loan fund re­quest for a new emer­gency fire ap­pa­ra­tus for Ridge Vol­un­teer Fire Depart­ment and fund­ing for a vol­un­teer de­pen­dent care pro­gram.

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