Speed cameras, pawnshop limits, tax break in Prince George's

By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Laws to install speed cameras near schools, limit pawnshop sales and give some property owners a tax break were approved Tuesday by the Prince George's County Council as it heads toward the end of its legislative session.

Beginning in January, the county plans to place cameras in 50 school zones over the following 12 to 18 months, and after a 30-day grace period, drivers will be mailed a $40 fine if caught by the devices, officials said. The tickets will not add points to a driver's license.

The cameras are permitted under a new state law that allows counties and towns to place them near schools. Opponents of the cameras believe they are a government intrusion on privacy and an unfair way to raise revenue. But Prince George's leaders had made passage of the state legislation a top priority this year. The cameras will discourage speeding and free police officers to focus on "much more serious crimes," said Jim Keary, spokesman for County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D).

The pawnshop bill, spearheaded by council member Eric Olson (D-College Park), is intended to protect consumers from potentially unsafe merchandise by barring the shops -- as well as secondhand stores -- from selling food, cosmetics and medications, Olson said.

"If you have medicines that have been sitting in somebody's trunk in the hot summer sun, it's not appropriate to be sold at a pawnshop," Olson said. "You don't know where the merchandise has been."

The county requires pawnshops and secondhand stores to have licenses, and the new rules -- which will take effect in December-- will prohibit shop owners from having other types of business licenses in the county. Olson said this is to make sure the prohibited items are not shuttled between different types of stores.

Representatives of the pawn industry said they do not object to most of the bill, but some said the clause restricting owners to a single type of business license would hurt some vendors who run other types of stores.

"I think it's not thought out from the standpoint of what they're trying to accomplish," said Richard J. Castaldi, a consultant and former council member who represents pawnshop owners.

The council also passed legislation regarding the Homestead Property Tax Credit, a statewide tax limit designed to protect homeowners from large increases in their property assessments year to year. If a homeowner's property value rises significantly, the tax cap allows the homeowner to pay taxes on only a portion of the new value. Each year, localities can set caps between zero and 10 percent above the home's previous value.

On Tuesday, the council voted to lower the current cap of 5 percent to zero, meaning that even if a house jumps in value, the homeowner will only pay taxes on the home's previous value.

In Prince George's, property taxes are tied to the Consumer Price Index for the previous 12 months. Because the CPI has been negative during that time, county officials said, the county's tax cap next year had to be set at zero.

This will mean an average savings of about $115 for each homeowner, officials estimate. County officials project the government will take in $34.6 million less in property tax revenue in fiscal year 2011 than it would have if the cap had remained at 5 percent -- yet another blow to the already strapped county.

The tax break is only for homeowners who live in their homes, not those who rent them out. The law takes effect July 1. A spokesman for Johnson said the administration supports all three measures.

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