Amusement tax change not amusing Howard County: Proposal to lower rate for six businesses is too generous and vague.

October 20, 1997

SUPPORTERS OF a resolution to reduce amusement taxes for six businesses in Howard County have failed, to this point, to make a solid argument for the change.

The proposal, co-sponsored by County Executive Charles I. Ecker and Councilman C. Vernon Gray, lacks a strong rationale and is too generous for at least one of the establishments that would benefit.

Howard County's amusement tax rate already is among the lowest in the area. The state allows jurisdictions to set the rate up to 10 percent. Howard's is at 7.5.

Backers of the legislation to cut Howard's amusement rate to 5 percent get a chance to make their case tonight at a public hearing. Before they do, they should ditch the worst part of the resolution -- a provision that would make it retroactive to September 1994.

The measure would cut the tax by one-third for facilities for tennis, baseball, basketball, soccer and volleyball.

The council previously reduced the rate to 5 percent for Merriweather Post Pavilion to help it compete with newer concert venues.

Mr. Ecker says he supported the measure because it would provide some "equity" for these facilities, which compete in a sense with karate schools and soccer and gymnastics training establishments that are exempt. But there's still no clear reason for the change in the legislation.

Ironically, the push for this gathered steam after a state audit discovered that Columbia's Volleyball House, which would benefit most, had failed to pay its quarterly tax bill dating to 1994. The recreational facility owes $45,000 in taxes and $13,000 in penalties.

Under the measure, the reduced tax rate would be retroactive to September 1994, which would excuse at least $15,000 from the Volleyball House's tax debt. There isn't a business delinquent in its tax bill (or homeowner for that matter) that wouldn't crave such a change.

Also absurd are threats that businesses may flee the county unless they get a reduction. They built their clientele in Howard -- under the existing amusement tax rate. Supporters, including the executive, need to articulate a clearer principle before expecting council members to revise the tax structure. The current proposal looks less like an economic development tool than a political boondoggle.

Pub Date: 10/20/97

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