The following is an op-ed piece from Delegates Kathy Szeliga and Ryan Nawrocki.
This week, our office is bringing before the Baltimore County Delegation a bill that will support volunteer fire companies. We have seen firsthand how important it is to support the safety of our communities. First responders need our full and committed support. For all the sacrifices that are made by the men and women that form all our volunteer fire departments, we aim to reduce their expenses by proposing a property tax exemption on other lands owned by volunteer fire and rescue companies. These additional properties include former locations of firehouses, prospective future firehouse sites, fairgrounds, and land used for other fundraisers such as carnivals and bazaars. Volunteer fire and rescue companies are recognized as non-profit 501(c)3 organizations, and as a result they receive the benefit of not paying sales tax or paying property tax on the land where their buildings are located; however, the additional properties that volunteer fire and rescue companies own still are taxed.
It is important that we extend a tax credit to these organizations as a whole to be exempt from paying property tax on all their properties; rather than only offering the credit to the land where the buildings currently reside. Volunteer fire and rescue companies are burdened by continual fundraising to accommodate their funding needs. They regularly have to shop around for the best deal when it comes to purchasing new equipment for their stations, rather than buying the top product on the market simply because they can’t afford it. Marylanders from all across the state, not just in Baltimore County, have enjoyed the popular train gardens at Christmas time, bull roasts, carnivals, and many other fundraising events that support these first responders who tirelessly sacrifice themselves for others. We are not ignorant of how much time and resources are used by volunteer locations to raise money to pay the bills. It’s critical to note that volunteer locations save the County budget a significant amount of money annually. There are a total of 29 volunteer companies and each is given around $250,000 in annual reimbursements for operating costs from the County. On the other hand, a career fire house that is fully funded by the County costs close to $4.4 million per year to operate according to the FY23 budget.
Looking at the financials comparing a volunteer fire station’s budget to a typical career house, the numbers are stark – $250,000 vs. $4.4 million. For example, Baltimore County gave a total financial support of $241,758 in FY22 to Middle River Volunteer Fire & Rescue Company to help cover operational expenses. And this support is not always cash in-hand; rather, a bulk of it is accounted for as services in-kind. Remember, that the operational expenses in a fiscal year do not account for future development, planning, and capital expenses. Breaking even is not the goal. Volunteer fire companies seek to invest in new equipment, gear, and supplies. Middle River Volunteer Fire & Rescue Company had to spend $80,000 recently to put a unit back into service, repairs like these aren’t always projected in the annual budget, just like when you suddenly have to replace your transmission in your car. Also, many companies are hoping to invest in future firehouses, or simply just be able to maintain their fleets when needed. These firefighters shouldn’t be fundraising to pay for property taxes. They should instead be fundraising for new equipment, gear, or improvements to the station. The types of line items on the expense sheet that ultimately benefit the citizens of Baltimore County – the tools necessary to engage in life-saving activity.
This tax credit will incentivize these much-needed volunteer organizations to continue their good work that provides an invaluable service to the community and a cost-savings to Baltimore County. By not allowing this credit, we are only disincentivizing volunteer companies to make future improvements upon their facilities or maintain properties that provide valuable open space to many communities. Supporters of this legislation include the Baltimore County Volunteer Firefighters Association and the entire membership of the Baltimore County Council. Councilman David Marks said of the legislation, “Public safety must be the top priority for government at all levels. I thank Delegates Nawrocki and Szeliga for spearheading this initiative, which will help our local volunteer fire companies use their precious resources on equipment and other needs. The unanimous support of my colleagues shows there is bipartisan backing for this legislation.” Even the leadership of volunteer fire companies that would not be receiving this credit because it does not apply to their properties, such as White Marsh Volunteer Fire Company, Long Green Volunteer Fire Company, and Liberty Road Volunteer Fire Company, are united in support of this legislation. We encourage you to support the bill as it moves through the legislative process in Annapolis. This will greatly help many volunteer fire companies by this cost-savings and allow them to focus on saving lives rather than additional fundraising demands!