Fairfax residents could be charged for ambulance trips and taxed locally for their cell phone use as county leaders look to trim the real estate tax rate further.
Several supervisors said last week that while imposing any new fees would be unpopular, the charges would allow the county to tap into broader sources of revenue than the soaring property taxes that are burdening homeowners in almost every neighborhood.
"If we're looking to spread the tax burden in a different way . . . and offset the real estate tax, we need to think about these charges," said Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock), chairman of the board's budget committee.
A $3 monthly tax on cell phone bills and a $200 emergency transport charge are among more than a dozen new or increased fees that County Executive Anthony H. Griffin proposed last Monday to buoy a budget strained by sagging revenue. Parking violations, sewer hookups, emergency dispatching and overdue library books would cost residents more, and sports leagues would be charged to use ball fields.
Those fees and other spending reductions would allow a 2-cent tax-rate cut, to $1.19 per $100 of assessed value from the current rate of $1.21. But several supervisors, some facing anti-tax opponents as they seek reelection in November, said they want to lower the rate further, by at least another penny.
A cell-phone tax and ambulance fees would generate about $13 million a year, or the equivalent of a penny on the tax rate. "I don't think I can support just the two cents," said Supervisor Elaine McConnell (R-Springfield).
Fairfax would join Arlington, Alexandria and the District in charging for ambulance rides. Service would be provided regardless of a caller's ability to pay. The cost of a transport would shift from the county to health insurance companies and Medicaid and Medicare. County officials have not decided whether bills would be sent to the patient, who would submit them to insurers, or to insurers directly. The $200 fee would still leave the county to bear another $128 in the cost of transporting a patient to a hospital.
"If somebody is uninsured, I don't expect we'll collect anything or harass anyone for money," Griffin said.
Even with a promise to shield the uninsured from charges, though, some people may be dissuaded from calling for help in an emergency, patient advocates said.
"Any type of fee can be interpreted by a consumer as a deterrent," said Mary Agee, president of Northern Virginia Family Service, a nonprofit human service group. "We would need to work with people so they understand that when they need to call, money should not be a factor."
Many ambulance pickups are eligible for coverage by CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, which insures about 200,000 people in Northern Virginia. But company spokesman Jeff Valentine said that "anything that increases our costs" would eventually be passed on in higher insurance premiums.
Supervisors are revisiting an old issue in the ambulance fee.
The board imposed a $100 fee in 1991, then rescinded it a month later under election-year pressure from police officers, firefighters and senior citizens. The firefighters union, concerned that the fee was deterring donations to the volunteer department, launched a campaign to mobilize the county's often-vocal older residents. Supervisors' offices were flooded with letters and phone calls.
But Bulova said this year's proposal is different "because we're thinking of using the revenue to offset the real estate tax."
Volunteer firefighters said they still oppose fees. "We're concerned people are going to say, 'We've had the service for years, we support you because it was provided for free, and now what's the incentive' " to donate, said Timothy Fleming, chairman of the Fairfax Volunteer Fire Commission, which represents 340 firefighters and emergency medical technicians.
Although Virginia law prohibits counties from imposing most local taxes besides property taxes, the General Assembly authorized local cell phone taxes in 1994. The maximum is $3 a month or 10 percent of the first $30 of a cell-phone user's monthly charge.
The idea, say Fairfax officials, is equity: Residential phone customers already pay a utility tax and a so-called E-911 tax to fund emergency police communications. Why shouldn't cell-phone users be subject to similar taxes?
"It's not too unreasonable to ask," McConnell said.
About 70 counties, cities and towns in Virginia -- including Prince William, Manassas Park, Loudoun and Arlington -- add the $3 tax to cell-phone bills, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, a trade group representing wireless companies. Manassas is considering imposing it.
"They see all these wireless users, and they think, let's lob on another tax," said Kim Kuo, an association spokeswoman.