Fire, EMS board mulls tax breaks
At their first meeting, members talk about $1.3 million in credits, improvements to 911 radio system
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.