Budget experts admit that the rationale behind user fees is not always easy to explain. Generally, user fees are paid for services that are considered optional -- admission to an indoor swimming pool, for instance -- or for regulatory functions such as certifying the work of builders, electricians or plumbers.
But the application of such fees is often inconsistent. For instance, Anne Arundel County may soon charge $3.50 for admission to its Annapolis pool, recouping 100 percent of the cost of running the facility. However, the county's proposed $4 admission price to nearby Quiet Waters Park will pay for only about 60 percent of the park's annual budget.
In the case of building-related permits, officials note that fees pay a much smaller fraction of the county's true costs, perhaps as little as 5 percent or 10 percent. For some fees, like cable television, there is no relationship to costs at all.
Consider also that revenue derived from fees is not actually set aside but most often goes into the county's general fund. As a result, only a marginal relationship exists between the amount of a fee and the cost of a service provided by the county.
"To some extent, it's a matter of what the market will bear," said Robert R. Neall, county executive in Anne Arundel County, where legislation to raise fees is pending before the County Council.
Another reason subdivisions turned to user fees this year is that few taxpayers ever complain about them. Even in Baltimore County where Comcast sent letters to cable television subscribers, warning them of a proposed fee increase in advance of council action, opposition was minimal.
County officials have found that user fees make taxpayers feel like they are getting something for their money and not depositing it straight into the government coffers.
"People are willing to pay for things when they think there's some direct nexus with the service provided," said Dennis Parkinson, Anne Arundel's budget officer. "They also know government isn't flush with money right now."
Still, user fees finance less than a 10th of county government tTC and can scarcely be relied upon to balance a budget every year. More permanent relief may only come when the state legislature restructures Maryland's tax system -- as recommended in the controversial Linowes commission report -- to make localities less reliant on property taxes.