State rules against sidewalk fee

Attorney general finds Annapolis levy unlawful

July 16, 2008|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,Sun reporter

A hotly disputed fee imposed on Annapolis property owners for maintenance of city sidewalks was unlawfully levied, according to an opinion issued by the Maryland attorney general's office.

The fee is essentially a new tax because it is mandatory and assessed even on those who have no sidewalks, said William R. Varga, an assistant attorney general. Municipalities cannot levy new taxes without state lawmakers' approval.

"The city lacks the authority to impose the charge unless the General Assembly was to enact enabling legislation applicable to all municipal corporations throughout the state," he wrote Monday.

His opinion, a response to a query by state Sen. John C. Astle on the issue, came the same day that aldermen introduced dueling pieces of legislation to delay or repeal the fee. A public outcry occurred after the bills arrived in the mail last month.

"If in fact [the attorney general's office] found it is a tax, it has to be repealed immediately," said Alderwoman Julie M. Stankivic, the lone opponent of the fee when it passed the council in October with little fanfare.

The ordinance called for homeowners to pay $25 a year and owners of commercial and nonresidential properties to pay $150 into a new fund that the city would draw from to pay for sidewalk repairs and construction. Previously, property owners were supposed to individually bear the cost.

Stankivic and Alderman Frederick M. Paone introduced a measure at Monday night's council meeting to eliminate the fee, while Aldermen Richard E. Israel and Samuel E. Shropshire introduced legislation to suspend its collection until 2010 in order to further study the issue and refund those who have already paid the fee.

Stankivic has also proposed the possibility of the city's funding sidewalk maintenance using its $1.9 million annual share of federal highway user revenue funds, which is used to pave roads. Mayor Ellen O. Moyer said she would consider that plan.

A city council work session is scheduled for 5 p.m. Monday to discuss the possible remedies.

Moyer said the city attorney, Shaem C. Spencer, had received a copy of the letter, but she had not yet reviewed it. Spencer did not reply to a call for comment, and Astle was out of town and unavailable for comment.

Moyer said Annapolis is home to government agencies, the Naval Academy and St. John's College that don't pay city property taxes. Other than property taxes, Moyer said, the city has little recourse but to raise funds for sidewalk maintenance.

"Municipalities are always at the bottom of the food chain ladder for money," Moyer said. "We don't have the same revenue-raising capacity as do counties and the state. And we rely heavily on the property tax. ... When is a fee a fee? When is a tax a tax? They can also take it to court and have it decided by a judge."

The city had previously held individual property owners responsible for maintaining the city's 120 miles of sidewalks, but many had gone long without repair, creating what the mayor called a public safety problem.

Hundreds of residents have complained to their aldermen, however, saying they weren't notified about it in advance, or that they don't have sidewalks, or that they shouldn't have to pay to cover other property owners' negligence.

At Monday night's council meeting, resident Tony Evans declared to applause from the packed chambers: "Take this thing back and give it a respectful funeral."

Resident Scott Bowling chided the mayor and council: "Pay attention to what you're voting for."

The mayor and council appeared contrite.

"Obviously, we could have done this better all around," said Alderman Ross H. Arnett II.

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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