Owens wants tax on cells

Levy on wireless phones would help improve police, fire departments

Phone companies opposed

Legislators reluctant to approve executive's plan for new revenue

Anne Arundel

March 05, 2004|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens began selling her proposed cellular phone tax to reluctant state legislators yesterday, telling them the proceeds would bolster her shorthanded police and fire departments.

"We have to build a solid public safety system and we need your support," Owens said.

She is seeking authority to levy, with County Council approval, a 5 percent tax on county residents' cellular phone bills. Such a tax would allow the county to raise between $6 million and $10 million annually, county officials have said.

While several employee unions testified in favor of the bill, representatives from four of the county's six cellular phone providers lined up to oppose it.

"It targets the wireless industry to pay for programs that benefit all residents of the county," said Cary B. Hinton of Sprint. "We think that's discriminatory."

Hinton said cellular phone users already pay fees and taxes on their bills that total between 13 percent and 15 percent of charges.

Yesterday's hearing marked the first step in an uphill battle; Owens has seemingly little support and needs several stamps of approval before she can enact such a tax.

First, she needs 10 of the county's 15 state delegates to endorse the bill and give it "delegation bill" status. That would likely pave the way for passage by the state House of Delegates.

Then she would need the same approval from the county's five state senators.

And if it passed and became law, the Democratic county executive would need approval from the Republican-controlled County Council to levy the tax.

The list of those who oppose the measure is lengthy and includes the county Republican Central Committee, the cellular phone industry and even the delegate who introduced the bill as a courtesy to county officials. Most members of the county delegation have also said they oppose the tax.

And County Council Republicans have given no indication that they support the measure.

Del. Mary Ann Love, the Democratic chairwoman of the delegation, said she didn't think yesterday's hearing changed the minds of local lawmakers.

The county's state delegates will discuss, and possibly vote on, the measure at their weekly meeting Friday.

Montgomery and Prince George's counties have enacted similar taxes. Anne Arundel officials say they have been hurt by state cuts and face a $15 million-and-growing shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

But county officials yesterday promised the delegates and senators that they would use the money to supplement - not replace - current public safety funding.

Del. Herbert H. McMillan, an Annapolis Republican, sharply criticized the proposal. Referring to the county's limits on annual property tax increases, he said, "I don't think the voters of this county enacted a tax cap so that other taxes would be [created]."

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Annapolis Democrat who works for the county recreation department, was the only delegate to speak in favor of the legislation. "I look at this as another tool the County Council will be able to look at," he said. "They can either use it or they don't use it."

Sen. Philip C. Jimeno said that the bill was "meaningless" unless the County Council supported the tax.

When Prince George's County received permission to impose a similar tax, delegates said, its County Council and county executive went to the General Assembly together.

Though two Democratic council members spoke in favor of the legislation, yesterday's hearing displayed the emerging rift between Owens and the County Council as budget season approaches.

Owens has also said she will seek to increase the county income tax rate by nearly a fifth, generating nearly $50 million. The Republican council members have said they are developing an alternative budget plan that will not depend upon tax increases.

Police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan and Fire Chief Roger C. Simonds told the delegation that the demands on their departments, partially because of heightened alerts after Sept. 11, 2001, have climbed rapidly.

Shanahan said the proliferation of cellular phones has required the county to begin installing a new $35 million radio system that will avoid cellular phone interference.

He said that as many as 50 people with cellular phones will call to report a single traffic accident, overwhelming dispatchers.

"Sometimes when you call 911 today you get a recording," he said "You should be appalled by that. ... We're asking for your support so we can do it better."

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