Baltimore County's Proposed Cellphone Tax Stirs Opposition

The $3.50 per month per phone tax is seen as a hardship by some, especially those with multiple lines, but the Baltimore County Council is looking for ways to amend the bill to still get the funding they need.

by Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun / May 13, 2019
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(TNS) — One Baltimore County councilman said a constituent cornered him in Costco over County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.’s proposal to tax residents’ cellphones. Another calls the measure the most unpopular idea in the budget.

Olszewski’s first spending plan would tax county residents $3.50 per cellphone each month, a move he said would raise much needed revenue to pay for county priorities. But council members say the plan is unlikely to pass without amendments.

“This is one of those things that might seem like a good idea to a budget analyst, but among ordinary Baltimore Countians, it’s just an unfathomable,” said Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican.

The idea has drawn concern from Republicans and Democrats alike on the seven-member council.

“It’s too much,” said Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat who called the tax “very regressive” and “unfair.”

The issue, council members said, is that the charges will stack up in an era when families have multiple cell phones. Olszewski proposed taxing each cell phone line individually — so a family with four cellphones would pay an additional $14 a month, or $168 a year.

“People are telling me how many phones and devices they have and how this will cause a hardship on them,” said Councilman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat. “Some people, this is their main line of communication, and it’s also their only access to the Internet.”

Residents who support the idea say it could help pay for important government services, while critics say it will squeeze their household budgets. The Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce also opposes the bill, saying it would burden small businesses that have multiple phones.

Olszewski spokesman T.J. Smith said the county executive “has heard the concerns of constituents” and is working with the council to come up with changes to the legislation. The council is set to vote on the bill as part of its budget vote on May 23.

In delivering his budget message last month, Olszewski said the county “has lost critical revenue” as families move away from landlines. The county currently taxes landlines at 8% of the monthly bill but doesn’t tax wireless services.

Officials expect to raise about $8.1 million this year from that landline tax — down from a peak of $13.2 million in 2007.

Several council members said they are exploring amendments that would levy one tax per family plan, rather than one per line.

“We’re looking at a number of options,” said Councilman Izzy Patoka, a Pikesville Democrat. “I’d just like to soften the burden on a family.”

At a recent budget hearing, Jake Lestock, a representative of CTIA, a trade association for the wireless communications industry, said the proposed tax would be among the highest local wireless taxes in the country, behind only Baltimore and Chicago.

Among Maryland jurisdictions, Baltimore City, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties tax for cellphone service, according to a survey by the Maryland Association of Counties. Baltimore’s is $4 per phone and Montgomery County’s is $3.50. Prince George’s County charges 8% of a customer’s service bill.

As proposed, the Baltimore County tax is projected to bring in more than $29.5 million annually. That’s nearly as much as the income tax increase Olszewski wants, which is estimated to raise about $33 million.

Pikesville resident Ivan Lutwin spoke out against the income and phone tax at a recent budget hearing, saying the new taxes combined would cost his family more than $700 a year. In an interview later, he said he understood the county has pressing needs, but called Olszewski’s budget plan a “tsunami of taxes.”

“All the taxes together are too much,” said Lutwin, 44, who works in technology sales.

In addition to the income and cellphone tax plans, Olszewski wants to increase the hotel tax from 8% to 10% and impose new taxes known as impact fees on developers.

Lori Harper of Parkville said a cellphone tax might push her to go choose a lower-cost carrier to lower her bill, but she doesn’t oppose the idea. She said sees a need for the county to invest in public schools, roads and water infrastructure.

“I see the need to maintain [county services] at the very least,” said Harper, 50, who works for a merchandising services company. “$3.50 a month — it’s not that bad. We’re going to get taxed one way or another.”

Nottingham resident Ronnie Hopson, 38, said she could support the phone tax, but the allocation of the revenues is important to her. Hopson, a wellness educator, said she wants to see the money be used to improve schools, parks and roads.

“I do care where that money goes,” said Hopson.

©2019 The Baltimore Sun. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.