County Considers Raising Charges To Avoid A Shortfall

January 06, 1991|By Samuel Goldreich | Samuel Goldreich,Staff writer

Anne Arundel residents could end up paying more for routine county charges ranging from building permits to library fines under a revenue-boosting option floated by the Office of the Budget.

Among the suggestions offered by Budget Officer Steven E. Welkos to avoid a deficit is increasing many of the fees, fines and user charges imposed for specific services.

Four years ago, budget planners began an annual review of all fees, with an eye to making users pay for specific county services.

The reviews included not only universal monthly charges for services like sewer and water but also such less-used services as library video rentals, park admissions and parking at the county's Annapolis garage across from the Arundel Center.

The budget office recommended changes in half of the 142 fee categories it analyzed in 1986, changes that would have generated almost $6.4 million in the first year.

"We were looking at trying to recapture all costs," Welkos said last week. "It's a philosophical question. Should they be 100 percent recouped through fees or should there be a certain percentage of taxpayer support?"

Many of the budget recommendations have been passed since 1986, including increases in recreation and parks activities fees, but Welkos estimated that the annual cost of the services countywide exceeded fee revenues by as much as $10 million during the county's boom years.

But with less demand on business-related services during the recession, he said that the service subsidy would be closer to $5 million in fiscal 1992, which begins July 1.

Although Welkos projects a $17 million surplus entering the new fiscal year, County Executive Robert R. Neall has already instituted a hiring freeze and spending controls to avoid the deficits faced by most governments in theBaltimore-Washington region.

Neall has also ordered agency chiefs to come up with zero-growth budgets for the coming year. But such built-in expenses as wages and expenses will add more than $14 million to the current $617 million operating budget even if the county refuses to give cost-of-living raises in negotiations with its 11 employeeunions.

Given the challenge of producing a balanced budget in May, an increase in service fees is one option the county will examine, said David Almy, Neall's deputy chief of staff.

"We will be reviewing them in due course over the next several months," he said last week. "But it's not something we are likely to do at this time."

Several County Council members gave general support last week to increasing some fees, but they also warned that cutting spending should be the first priority in budget debates.

"I think it's time to look atmaking some of these programs more self-sufficient," freshman County Councilman Edward Middlebrooks, D-Severn, said Friday. "But we should not cut off services to people who need them most."

Middlebrooks lambasted Neall last month for not lowering the 10-percent growth limit in property tax assessments mandated last year by the General Assembly. He argued that limiting county taxes is the key to capping spending.

"The only way to cut government spending is to cut the amount of money the county has to spend," he said.

Councilman David G.Boschert, D-Crownsville, agreed, suggesting that the county could start trimming by folding the Glen Burnie urban renewal program into the Office of Economic Development.

He also warned that raising fees related to business and development would discourage economic activity and undermine the tax base.

Councilwoman Maureen Lamb, D-Annapolis, also said that raising development fees, when added to impact fees and the county's adequate facilities ordinance, could be counterproductive.

"Talking with the trades, they say they're already overburdened," she said. "I think we have the highest costs right now in the state. I'd have to look at that very closely."

In 1986, the budget office recommended a $1 fee for videocassette rentals to generate$200,000 a year in income. The system has continued free rentals, but it abandoned popular movies in 1989 and rents only childrens, documentary and informational videos.

The Board of Library Trustees will consider raising overdue fees this month from 10 cents a day to 15cents, with an increase in the maximum fine from $4 to $6.

Councilwoman Diane Evans, R-Severna Park, warned against making it difficult to use the library.

"People who turn books in late should be forced to pay for it," she said. "But we don't want to make the fines sohigh that they move to another state."

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