8% tax on cell phones sought

Local levy Owens wants would raise $10 million to hire police, firefighters

Goal is to offset state cuts

Annapolis delegate says plan faces tough battle in General Assembly

Anne Arundel

January 14, 2004|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens asked local legislators yesterday for permission to levy a cellular phone tax, saying the county needs help in offsetting another round of state budget cuts.

The county executive wants an 8 percent tax on cellular phone bills, which officials said would raise $10 million in revenue next fiscal year. Owens said the money would be used to hire more police officers and firefighters, and to buy new equipment.

The county is facing a shortfall of at least $7 million, Owens has said.

Owens made her plea at her annual pre-session meeting with state lawmakers from the county. The meeting isn't the standard forum for debating issues, but a debate over the proposed cellular phone tax began immediately.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Anne Arundel edition mischaracterized County Executive Janet S. Owens' public position on a proposed local cellular phone tax. Owens said she favors such a tax, and distributed information at a meeting showing that it could raise $10 million next fiscal year for the county. But she did not specifically call for the tax rate that would be required - 8 percent. The Sun regrets the error.

Del. Herbert H. McMillan, a Republican from Annapolis, told Owens that the proposed local tax makes him uncomfortable. He said the tax would burden residents and businesses.

"All of these taxes are like paper cuts," he told her.

Owens responded, "I look forward to arguing with you, Herb."

A task force formed by Owens recently recommended an overhaul of the fire department, including additional hirings.

McMillan said the tax revenue would free up money that would have gone to public safety for programs that he considers unnecessary. He said the tax will face a tough challenge from delegates.

Owens needs permission from the state to impose such a tax. To pass the General Assembly, the bill would likely need the support of the county's legislative delegation. A local bill that gains such support typically moves through the rest of the legislative process without intense debate.

Del. Mary Ann Love, a Democrat who heads Anne Arundel's contingent to the House of Delegates, said yesterday that before state lawmakers passed such a bill, they would want to know that the County Council would approve the tax. Owens is a Democrat; the council has a Republican majority.

Last year, the state granted permission for Prince George's County to levy a similar tax.

The state provides about $55 million toward Anne Arundel's nearly $900 million operating budget. That does not include about $210 million the state provides for kindergarten-through-12th-grade education and Anne Arundel Community College.

The pre-session gathering of county leaders and Anne Arundel delegates and senators is an annual event. In many ways, it is similar to a team gathering before a big competition. The 90-day legislative session begins today at the State House in Annapolis.

Last year, Owens arrived at the annual meeting without a wish list and asked legislators to hold the line on funding.

This year, the fiscal situation is worse. The state faces a budget shortfall of more than $700 million for next fiscal year.

Topping the list of priorities Owens distributed to the delegates and senators yesterday was a request that they "please do not hurt local government." Last year, the county received less funding than it did the year before.

Owens asked the legislators for help in preserving a $7.8 million grant to some counties to offset tax breaks provided to utility companies. That might be a lost cause, said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat. He added that he does not expect Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to include that money in his budget proposal next week.

Owens also asked that if the state approves slot machines at Laurel Park, it also grant appropriate impact funding to Anne Arundel.

She also wants the state to assume all financial responsibility if it closes Crownsville Hospital Center, one of the state's three largest mental health hospitals.

Owens said she can't cut any more from the budget without sacrificing programs. Last year, she laid off 16 police officers after the County Council unexpectedly rejected her wage-freeze legislation. She was able to hire half of them back.

This year, she has said she won't lay off any public safety workers, and her top officials have been traveling around the county telling residents to expect a cut in services or an increase in taxes.

She said the public has not favored service cuts.

"There's no fat there," she said. "We're into muscle."

After the meeting, McMillan said he doubted that claim. He noted two small expenditures that he said were symbolic: Owens' use of $2,500 to send holiday cards in 2002 (she later reimbursed the county) and a $2,300 expenditure to put her name on roadside welcome signs at county borders last year.

"If there's no fat, where did that come from?" he asked.

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