Annapolis to consider raising liquor license, other fees

Cohen looks to avoid property tax hike with fee income

December 30, 2010|By Nicole Fuller, The Baltimore Sun

With a tight budget anticipated in the coming year, Annapolis Mayor Joshua J. Cohen plans to look at possible increases to municipal fees.

While saying he wants to avoid raising property taxes, Cohen said that he plans a broad review of the city's entire fee structure, with a close look at another hike to the city's liquor license fees.

"His sort of philosophy is that you should pay for the service that you're given," said Philip McGowan, a spokesman for Cohen, a Democrat. "The mayor has said we need to look at things across the board and say, 'Is the fee commensurate with what it costs to put out the service?'"

Last July, the City Council voted to raise a variety of fees — including fees for summer programs, access to city swimming pools and boat mooring fees. Many of the fees had not increased for several years.

Alderman Ross Arnett, a Democrat, expressed reluctance to any increase in fees.

"We've been raising fees like crazy," said Arnett. "I think [liquor license] fees have gone too far already. Even if we were to raise fees 100 percent, it's not going to even make a drop in the bucket."

Democratic Alderman Ian Pfeiffer, by contrast, said he was willing to "look at everything."

In the last couple of years, liquor license fees have been on the rise in Annapolis. In 2008, the fees rose by about 30 percent. In 2009, the fees rose by more than 54 percent, angering many of the city's bar and restaurant owners. There are more than 100 businesses with liquor licenses in Annapolis.

Chuck Ferrar, owner of Bay Ridge Wine & Spirits, called the increases "obscene." Two years ago, he paid $2,200 for a liquor license. It then rose to $3,000, and he now pays $4,500. Any further increase, he said, would be "crazy."

"There's no justifiable reason," said Ferrar, who said that other than police protection, all his other services are provided by Anne Arundel County. "A license fee should cover the expenses and costs we incur. I pay $25,000 a year in property taxes, and I get absolutely nothing from the city other than great police protection."

Ferrar, a former county councilman, said the industry is an "easy target."

"It's a sin tax," said Ferrar. "Why don't we tax them? The liquor industry, we're made up of small, independent, family businesses. We're the mom-and-pop stores. We're the weak little guys."

Since Cohen became mayor last January, he decreased the city's budget by 12 percent — a percentage decrease the city says is the highest of any Maryland government. He also furloughed some workers and laid off 33 employees. Cohen also cut overtime spending. Despite those moves, the city had to take out a bank loan of $10 million earlier this year to deal with a cash-flow problem that threatened the city's ability to make payroll. The loan was repaid last month.

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