ANNAPOLIS - Montgomery County cut taxes last year, but the average homeowner paid the county more money.
Residents paid slightly more in property taxes, but the increase was more than offset by a telephone tax cut and the elimination of a beverage-container tax. But even as county officials took credit for a net tax cut, they charged more for garbage disposal and water to make up the difference.
Fees for everything from recycling to getting married account for more spending in Montgomery and Prince George's counties than in any other large jurisdiction in Maryland, state officials say.
"User fees" are nothing new, but local leaders, for whom tax increases on property and income can be political suicide, are relying on the fees more than ever. Elected officials levy the fees on targeted groups - such as parents of schoolchildren, community college students or couples getting married - and avoid a high-profile fight to raise taxes across the board.
"If you can identify the folks who benefit exclusively from a service, then it's in your best interest to tie the cost to them and no one else," said Douglas Brown, Prince George's County's budget director.
Tax-reform advocates say such charges are a sneaky way to impose new taxes.
"Nobody thinks about actually cutting expenses for once," said John O'Neill, president of the Maryland Taxpayers Association. "Everyone always falls back on the idea of raising new money, and it's a dead end in the long run."
In fiscal 1994, the most recent year for which statistics are available, Prince George's County imposed $255.7 million in user fees, according to the state Department of Fiscal Services. That was 15.1 percent of the county's $1.7 billion budget.
During the same fiscal year, Montgomery collected $292.6 million, or 13.6 percent of its $2.1 billion budget, from the special fees.
Local budget officials around the state are drafting spending plans for the fiscal year that begins July 1. For many of Maryland's 24 localities, including those in the Washington suburbs, budget shortfalls will require sharp spending cuts, tax increases or, in some cases, more user fees.
Since 1990, when the state first started tracking the use of service charges, the fees have grown as a proportion of local budgets in almost all 23 counties and Baltimore city.
Among Maryland's seven largest jursidictions, which form a political and …