WE'RE AT 301 W. Preston St. in Baltimore, where companies are born, in the state of Maryland, where the governor says he is business-friendly, but the attendees do not feel befriended.
"Man, I'm about sick of these prices!" says Ella McDaniel, the efficient, knowledgeable receptionist in the state business-filing office who can be considered the midwife to Maryland corporations. "Making me have a headache!"
"It's making me have a headache," says Walter Bennett, proprietor of Stellar Satellite, a small Baltimore company that installs TV dishes.
Bennett, 63, is here to obtain a certified copy of Stellar's amended articles of incorporation, which a potential client wants to examine.
Bennett's headache comes from the fact that he is paying almost $200 on Wednesday for documents that would have cost half as much Monday.
McDaniel's headache is caused by the increase of virtually every business-filing fee, which requires her to work from an unfamiliar menu of government rake-offs and to dispense sticker shock to a long line of customers, one at a time.
"It's ridiculous," says Anita Foster, who lives in Baltimore and is registering a corporate zygote called Being Me, an intended movie producer. She has written a script called Hood Dreamz, she says, and auditions are July 13. "I see the state sitting on too much money."
Actually, too little state money was the reason for the filing-fee increase.
Annapolis faced a billion-dollar budget deficit, and higher prices effective Tuesday for acquiring a Certificate of Limited Liability Partnership or submitting a Notice of Change of Name or Address of Registered Agent will generate tens of millions in new revenue.
But there are many ways to fix a deficit. A couple of hours in Maryland's Corporate Charter Division may convince one that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the Maryland Chamber of Commerce worried more about the interests of large, rich businesses than small, striving ones.
The chamber fought bills that would have reversed the effects of Delaware tax shelters and other big-company gravy but signed off on the filing-fee increases. Your dues at work, chamber members.
Brandt Quinn, 43, of Silver Spring saw both sides of the fee fattening. He registered an export-import company the last week in June and paid $118. When he returned a few days later to record a consulting firm, the price was $150.
"That's 30 bucks" extra, he says, which doesn't fully reflect the increases. Most fees doubled to $100, and many filers pay extra charges for same-day service, copies and corrections. The record-high cost for one filer last Wednesday was $212, which receptionist Ella McDaniel announced in a loud voice and which drew sympathetic chuckles from the queue.
Many companies pay these fees multiple times as a result of legal cases or changes in address or organization.
"I meant to come Monday," says Joyce Burness, who lives near Berkeley Springs, W.Va. "If I did, it would have cost me half. I understand raising prices, but, I mean, double them?"
She is here to reinstate, for $100, the corporate charter of a restaurant she used to own in Montgomery County, and she rails about Maryland regulation and the red tape she endured at the restaurant. "That's one reason I got out" to West Virginia, where, she says, she recently remodeled her house.
"Don't I need a permit?" she asked the county.
"Ma'am, this is West Virginia," the official replied, as Burness happily recounts it. "You don't need no stinkin' permit."
It would be false to portray the filers as outraged or anything other than annoyed.
"There are certain costs of doing business," says Bennett, the TV-dish entrepreneur. "You've got to go with the flow."
If these people balked at small obstacles, they wouldn't be running companies. Several said customers will bear the ultimate cost, anyway.
"What are you going to do, not file?" says George Belle, 60, who's setting up a real estate company. "The person who's going to pay it is the person who can't pass it on to anybody else."
Perhaps, but businesses are having the hardest time raising prices in decades.
The good news is that Maryland's company birthrate seems unimpeded by bigger fees. The other good news is that several filers seemed to understand the value of good regulation - even at higher prices.
"Everybody's against raising taxes," says Belle, "but I'm also against losing services."