Montgomery Tobacco Tax Lives On

It is expected to last for just one year, but Montgomery County officials still plan to start collecting the county's new tobacco tax July 1.

The County Council passed a tax in December on all tobacco products except cigarettes, which already were taxed by the state. A few months later, during this year's General Assembly session, Maryland legislators passed their own tobacco tax, effective July 1, 2000, agreeing that the state would tax cigars, snuff and other tobacco products in addition to cigarettes. In Maryland, state law takes precedence over county law.

But Montgomery County officials had planned to begin collecting the county tax a year before the state tax takes effect. The question two months ago was whether Montgomery would indeed go ahead and collect its tax, even if for just one year.

The answer now coming from Rockville is yes.

This month, the county will send out forms for tobacco merchants to comply with the new county law, which taxes retailers up to 6 cents per cigar, depending on size; 36 cents per 1.5 ounces of snuff; and 36 cents per 3 ounces of chewing tobacco.

Timothy L. Firestine, Montgomery's finance director, said the county estimates it will collect $300,000 in revenue during the tax's expected year-long life span. The county has budgeted $142,000 for collection expenses. Firestine noted that most of that is for auditing -- which will only take place, he said, if revenue seems to vary widely from projections.

"We're trying to keep administrative expenses to a minimum," Firestine said.

County Council President Isiah Leggett (D-At Large) said the council decided to keep the county tobacco tax alive partly to ensure that a tax on these products would be in effect in Montgomery, even if the state tax is challenged in court.

"Our belief was that it would be best to go forward with the law as it is," Leggett said.

-- Manuel Perez-Rivas

A Push for Convention Center Cash

The convention center under construction at Mount Vernon Square is just a big hole in the ground now, but community groups are scrambling for -- and squabbling over -- millions of dollars being released to make the project more palatable to the Shaw neighborhood.

The Washington Convention Center Authority has banked $1 million for a Historic Preservation Committee to spend in the architecturally significant neighborhood. Activists are competing to get on the committee. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has been tentatively selected to help administer the money.

Civic groups are angling for control over another $1.25 million slated for economic development.

The authority also has set aside $500,000 for streetscape improvements and $2 million to rehabilitate the building and grounds of the historic Carnegie Library.

The Mount Vernon Square Business Alliance, representing 37 businesses surrounding the center, reached an agreement with the authority for funds to help cover losses caused by street closings during construction. The shops along Ninth Street NW have suffered most dramatically.

The authority chose the NOAH Group, a for-profit job skills provider in Silver Spring, and Peoples Involvement Inc., a community development corporation, to receive an $800,000 contract to create a training academy for residents. Some residents are upset that another proposal by a Shaw-based coalition did not win the contract.

Finally, residents are still seeking to influence the final design, even as the foundation work begins. They are disappointed that restaurants at the south end of the center will be below street level instead of opening directly onto the sidewalk, and they say the north facade of the $685 million building is blank and boring.

-- David Montgomery

School Curbs Parking Problem

The parking problem on the residential streets around Loudoun County High School while school is in session long ago reached the chronic stage. Students quickly fill up the 178 on-campus spaces reserved for their cars, and the surrounding streets become parking lots.

Teenagers park in front of driveways and mailboxes, and they litter and linger on the sidewalks. The situation is not unlike those near other suburban high schools, where competition for parking creates tensions between students and residents.

The problem had been expected to worsen in the fall, when eight portable classrooms will be installed on campus, eliminating 30 parking spaces.

Some of the school's neighbors have appealed to the Leesburg Town Council, which has asked police to patrol the area. Leesburg Vice Mayor B.J. Webb said the council also may establish permit parking or prohibit curbside parking during school hours.

So it was welcome news when school officials announced last week that they plan to create 110 parking spaces on campus this summer by assigning some space formerly reserved for maintenance workers to students, creating parking spaces between two ball fields and sandwiching more next to the school bus pickup area.

But County School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III said the school alone can't eliminate the parking problem. "It takes the parents, too," he said. "We need them to be getting involved with the driving habits of their children as well."

-- Liz Seymour