Worried about a drop-off in money from the state, Manassas officials are weighing a cell phone tax that could generate an estimated $336,000 in annual revenue for the city's general fund, John Grzejka, commissioner of revenue, said last week.
If the tax -- a maximum of $3 a month, or 10 percent on the first $30 of net monthly charges by cell phone users -- is adopted, it could take effect as early as July.
"We're seriously considering that, and we've done some estimates based on what other [jurisdictions] have collected around us," City Manager Lawrence D. Hughes said in an interview last week.
With or without the tax, Hughes is scheduled to present a budget to the City Council on Feb. 24. The council will vote on the final budget in late April.
Manassas already taxes residential telephone users $4.10 a month. A $1.10 "E-911" tax funds an emergency communications center at the Manassas Police Department, and there is also a utility tax of up to $3 per line.
Grzejka said that Manassas city public schools are seeking more money, and that the city wants to plan for possible public safety funding cutbacks by the state, which is experiencing a $1.2 billion budget shortfall.
"We're stilling waiting for the [state] budget. Hopefully it doesn't do too much damage to cities and counties," Grzejka said. "Subcommittees and full committees [in the General Assembly] generally shot down any revenue increases. . . . Local government needs to provide revenues, so sometimes a hard choice needs to be made for where to find revenue."
Mike Edwards, deputy director for the Virginia Municipal League, said it is hard to speculate about the upcoming state budget. He commends efforts by Manassas to have a contingency plan.
"It sounds like Manassas is being prudent and conservative in their planning," Edwards said. "I would give them high marks for preparing for a possible reduction in revenues."
Prince William County and the City of Manassas Park already levy up to $3 in cell phone fees. Loudoun and Arlington counties also tax cell phone users, but Fairfax County and the cities of Fairfax, Falls Church and Alexandria do not.
Manassas Park City Manager David W. Reynal said that it may just be a matter of time before all local jurisdictions catch on.
"From Virginia Beach to Fredericksburg and all over the state, it's not universally taxed like land lines or gas or electricity," he said.
Reynal estimates that Manassas Park will take in about $50,000 this fiscal year, the first year of the cell phone tax.
Reynal said the city adopted the tax partially as a precautionary measure against state budget cuts.
"The cell phone tax is a local tax that doesn't go through the state at all, and hopefully it's relatively secure and relatively stable," he said.
Chris Martino, director of revenue for Prince William County, said the county takes in about $2.2 million annually from its cell phone tax, a figure that will climb.
"Now everybody's started getting cell phones," Martino said. "We have an evolution going on."
Martino said many people have both land lines and cell phones. If people continue to replace one with the other, he said, overall revenue could drop again.
"It's hard to figure out exactly what's going to happen," Martino said.