Mayor Richard Hillman is in a war of words with the city's boating industry.
Hillman is, "like most Annapolitans, not a boater," he says. Like a lot of nonboaters, he occasionally looks askance at the hordes of "yachties" who arrive each summer to crowd the streets and waters of this otherwise quaint city by the bay. Sometimes he looks askance out loud.
So it was that recently, reiterating opposition to efforts to repeal a county-city boat slip tax, he boldly characterized the local boating business as "just ugly sticks in public water."
The phrase, which Hillman says later was printed in local newspapers out of context, won him a wrathful front-page rebuttal in the local advertising handout, the Publick Enterprise, in which the comment was called "one of the most egregiously stupid political remarks of the decade."
That doesn't bother Hillman, who sniffs: "I don't read the Enterprise." Anyway, he said, he wasn't referring to boats, which he finds attractive. He was talking about marinas.
The marinas in Annapolis "have a little land for parking, a little building for services. Maybe they sell bait there," he said with undisguised contempt. "Then they use our water--water that belongs to everyone--and rent it to people. They don't have a big investment. It's not as though they built something in the water that was inherently attractive. No one thinks a marina is attractive. It's just pilings and planks."
"And then," he continued, "they begrudge us a puny $290,000 in tax revenues, which they don't even pay themselves."
The $290,000, a not-insignificant chunk of the $13 million the city raises in general tax revenues yearly, comes from a 10 percent slip tax paid by anyone who docks a boat in Anne Arundel County.
The tax also raises more than half a million dollars for the county government. That pleases both jurisdictions.
But it infuriates many marina operators, who contend, as one of them put it, that it is the only such tax in the "state, the region, the nation or possibly the world," and is putting them at a disadvantage in competing with marinas in neighboring Baltimore, Calvert County and Kent Island across the bay.
Hillman and County Executive James Lighthizer, citing budget difficulties, steadfastly defend the 10-year-old tax and have prevailed upon the legislature, which authorized it, not to repeal the authorization.
Marina operators just as steadfastly hope to kill the tax, or at least convince the county commissioners to phase it out, said Mick Blackistone, executive director of the Anne Arundel and Maryland Marine Trades Associations.
Blackistone said that the tax, tacked onto the already high costs of boating in Annapolis and the county, is pushing yachts elsewhere. He said that marinas in Annapolis are about 15 percent empty, where a few years ago there were waiting lists.
"Calvert Marina on rural Solomons Island, south of Annapolis advertises, 'No tax; one hour from the Washington Beltway; no traffic,' " said Blackistone. "How can a guy in Annapolis compete with that?"
Calvert County commissioners have declared that Solomons "will replace Annapolis as the yachting capital of Maryland, and they're living up to it," Blackistone said.
Annapolis marina owner John Meneely calls the Calvert challenge "fightin' words." But, said Meneely: "The city Annapolis acts like it isn't true, and it doesn't care, anyway."
The typical boat slip in Annapolis costs between $2,000 and $3,000 a year, Blackistone said. Marina owners usually add the 10 per cent tax of $200 to $300 as a line item in the bill. It rankles marina operators to think that their counterparts elsewhere can, with lower property costs and no tax to contend with, undercut those charges by $1,000 or more.
Hillman maintains that Annapolis will always be the hub of Maryland boating, regardless of the tax. "Solomons and Kent Island are nice," he said, "but there's only one Annapolis. People keep their boats here for a reason."
"People sit on their boats at the dock more than they sail on them," the mayor explained. "They do that because it's Annapolis. We feel, here's a small way we can tax these visitors. It's nice revenue that doesn't hurt anyone and we can tell our residents: 'Look, the streets and waters are crowded, but they do pay a slip tax that's saving 9.8 cents per $100 on the tax rate.' "
Hillman says it appalls him that marina operators contend they don't get any services for their slip-tax dollars.
"I said, 'Okay, then I'll tell my firemen next time there's a fire at a marina, don't go.' "
And the war goes on.