The decade-old debate between Montgomery and Prince George's counties over who should pay for firefighting service in Takoma Park has heated up again, this time over a proposal to build a new fire station that would serve only the Montgomery part of the bicounty city.
Montgomery County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist has proposed closing Takoma Park's only fire station, at Carroll Avenue and East West Highway, as well as a Silver Spring station off Georgia Avenue, and consolidating those services at a new site in the area of Piney Branch Road and Sligo and Ritchie avenues in Takoma Park.
The consolidated station would serve only the Montgomery County part of Takoma Park, or about two-thirds of the city. The existing Takoma Park station, two blocks inside the Montgomery line, serves all of Takoma Park, which has 16,500 residents. About a third of the calls to which the station responds are from the Prince George's sector.
Under a 1974 agreement, Montgomery County took over operation of the fire station from the city, and Prince George's assumed part of the cost of operation. But since 1978, Prince George's has refused to pay for service in its part of the city, arguing that payment is unnecessary because the two counties routinely provide fire service to one another as part of a "mutual aid" program.
The counties have been squabbling ever since. Last year, Montgomery tried to get the money by withholding $118,000 -- the amount it contends Prince George's owes -- from its allocations to Takoma Park, telling the city to collect it from Prince George's. Takoma Park sued Montgomery, and in October a Circuit Court judge ruled that Montgomery must pay the money.
Robert Kendal, assistant chief administrative officer in Montgomery and chairman of a county task force that recommended the fire station consolidation, said the proposed move was forced in part by the intransigence of Prince George's officials.
"We have tried for several years to obtain reimbursement from them, to no avail," he said, adding that he believes Montgomery no longer has a responsibility to provide fire protection in the Prince George's sector.
Not surprisingly, Prince George's officials see the issue differently.
"Given the extraordinary wealth of Montgomery County, that they would demand payment from us . . . is outrageous," said Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening. "The people who will suffer are the people in Takoma Park -- on both sides of the line."
The closest Prince George's station, in Chillum-Adelphi on Riggs Road, is about two miles from the current Takoma Park station.
Takoma Park Mayor Stephen J. DelGiudice said the city is caught in the middle of "a very dangerous game" being played by the counties.
"Moving the fire station will have drastic consequences for the fire safety of the citizens of Takoma Park," he said. "In practical terms, it means an increase in response time, and, particularly in Ward 3" -- which is divided between the two counties -- "a lot of old, wood-frame houses will be placed at risk." The Takoma Towers, a large apartment complex for the elderly, would also be placed at risk, he said.
Kendal, however, said the Takoma Park and Silver Spring stations, the two oldest stations in the county, are "antiquated and inadequate facilities," adding that while the county has "Band-aided them through renovations," sooner or later they will have to be replaced.
While a new station would cost $1.7 million to build, consolidating stations could save the county up to $20 million over 20 years, Kendal said.
But Dennis M. Kneessi Sr., president of the Takoma Park Volunteer Fire Department Inc., said he is opposed to the consolidation. He said that because the Takoma Park and Silver Spring stations are two of the five busiest stations in the county, there is "no way" a consolidated facility could adequately serve both areas.
Kneessi and DelGiudice said the proposed move also does not take into account what they believe is the inevitable unification of Takoma Park into Montgomery County.
Kendal, however, said the county will address that problem if unification occurs. In the meantime, he said, "We have been told repeatedly by Prince George's officials, including their fire chief, that they are perfectly capable of providing the Prince George's side with the same level of service they provide to the rest of their county."
The Montgomery County Council, which must approve the consolidation proposal, will hold a public hearing on the issue Jan. 28.