To hear Reisterstown restaurant owner John Worthington tell it, the traders license that he gets to conduct business in Baltimore County is a pretty good deal, at $250 annually. But County Executive Kevin Kamenentz is concerned that the price is too good, having remained the same since 1920.
Kamenetz is seeking to raise licensing fees for many businesses, including chain stores, dry cleaners, restaurant owners, parking garage operators and liquor stores — most of which haven't been changed in almost 75 years.
A change in state law would be required to give the county authority to set the fees. Kamenetz spoke with members of the county delegation Friday in Annapolis, noting that many fees don't even cover processing and administrative costs. He asked lawmakers to consider raising the fees if it did not want to give the county the power to set rates.
"In 1920, it cost 5 cents for a loaf of bread, 29 cents for a gallon of milk, and the cost of a business permit was $15," Kamenetz said in an interview. "In 2010, a loaf of bread is $2.50, a gallon of milk is $3 and the cost of a traders permit is $15. I think that at least once every 90 years we ought to revisit the rate."
Kamenetz described most of the proposed fee hikes as modest: a plumber's or dry cleaner's license could go from $15 to $40. For restaurant owners, the increases vary from $25 to $1,325 higher than the current rate. Liquor license fees could run from $100 to $2,500; the current maximum is $1,000.
The fee hikes would likely generate an additional $1.2 million annually, Kamenetz said.
House Delegation Chairman John Olszewski Jr., a Dundalk Democrat, said he thought Kamenetz's request was fair and reasonable, but the response from other lawmakers was mixed. He said the delegation might discuss the proposed legislation next Friday.
Del. Kathy Szeliga, a Republican who represents parts of Baltimore and Harford counties, said she's interested in eliminating some fees that are no longer necessary, such as a charge for pool tables.
"Taxpayers should not have to pay for the cost of issuing the license, and I wouldn't want to place any additional burden on businesses today," she said. "To be able to find that balance and make sure the fee pays for the service is what I'd like to do."
With the county facing a $38.5 million revenue shortfall and many millions more in state aid cuts, every dollar counts, Kamenetz said. "What I'm trying to do is find pennies on the floor that we can use to help absorb some of these cuts."
But his proposals drew sharp rebukes from business and restaurant lobbying groups.
"A penny to someone else is a million dollars," said Jeff Zellmer, senior vice president of the Maryland Retailers Association. "It's all relative."
Zellmer said the age of the fees is "not relevant."
"When everything's flat and off, to come in with a bill like this to ask to raise fees, I think it's foolhardiness on his part," Zellmer said. "This is not the time to be increasing fees that would ultimately be paid by the consumer. They can't afford it, the businesses can't afford it."
A spokesman for the Restaurant Association of Maryland said he's concerned that turning the fee rates over to the county would erode checks and balances.
"We also oppose it because it sets a dangerous precedent that we don't want other jurisdictions to follow," said Melvin Thompson, the association's senior vice president. "We would lose a voice in helping to control runaway license fee increases."
Representatives from local business associations said they were concerned about the potential impact on area merchants, particularly mom-and-pop shops that struggle just to keep the doors open. But they expressed optimism that fee increases would be fair.
"Baltimore County needs revenue to operate, so with some restraint and care, I think these things can occur," said Terrence Nolan, president of the Arbutus Business and Professional Association.
The traders license is the only one that's remained stable, said Worthington, who owns the Grill at Harryman House. He pays about $1,000 annually for a liquor license and $300 for a food service permit, the cost of which recently increased.
"Am I happy about paying more? No," he said. "But if that's the worst thing, then I'm not that upset about it. If they raise everything, then it's gonna start digging into it a little bit more."