Cellular phone companies? snafu may snag plan to charge tax

MANASSAS PARK — The City Council is betting that a tax of up to $3 per month on every cell phone in the city will bring in as much $100,000 per year if passed as part of the citys 2002 budget.

But with cellular phone providers already confusing Manassas Park with Prince William County, at least one council member wonders if the city may need some outside help implementing the tax.

“I think we need to get a consultant in here. We cant have staff go back to school on this thing,” said Councilman William Wren.

City Manger David W. Reynal insists that the cellular phone companies are responsible for collecting the tax pure and simple.

“By state law, theyre required to collect the tax. The way they do it is their responsibility,” he said.

Virginia gives localities the option of requiring cellular phone companies to charge a tax of 10 percent on the monthly bills of every resident. The tax is frozen at $3 for any bill more than $30.

With Manassas Park and a part of Prince William County sharing the 20111 ZIP code, some cellular phone companies have mistaken city residents for county residents and charged them the countys tax.

In the past year, four members of City Council have been charged Prince William Countys cellular phone tax, according to Mayor William J. Treuting.

Treuting himself has yet to convince Cingular Wireless that he doesnt need to pay the tax, described on his budget as a “local mobile consumer utility tax.”

“They responded back that they had no indication I lived in the city,” he said.

Councilman Kevin Brendel was able to get charges removed from his cellular phone bill after City Attorney Brian Lubkeman contacted Verizon, which agreed to respond quickly to any complaint.

“Weve refunded those charges to the customers. Weve fixed that tax assessment in our billing system, entering in the information manually,” said John Johnson, a Verizon spokesman.

Treuting said the $100,000 figure was determined after he conducted a straw poll in his neighborhood.

“I believe more people than not have cell phones,” he said.

Lubkemans office has only handled a “handful” of complaints.

“I dont think theres been a rash of people calling and complaining,” he said.

Money from city residents going to the county would only concern the city if the city has its own tax, Lubkeman said.

Steve Ferlotti, the countys tax administration manager, said the county has never had to return any money to a cellular phone company.

“We dont get any data from them. All we get is a check,” he said.

The number of Manassas Park cellular phone users accidentally paying a county tax should be “very small,” according to Johnson.

But Johnson also wondered how many Manassas Park residents are even aware they are being charged the tax, since Verizon is one of the few companies actually listing it as a tax for “Prince William County.”

When told of billing problems, representatives for Cingular and Sprint both said their companies are moving toward nine-digit ZIP codes, which should help correct the problem.

Johnson agreed that nine-digit ZIP codes help. But he also cautioned that Verizon, which is already using them, has still made mistakes.

“ZIP plus four is not enough to tell which side of a municipal dividing line a customer is going to be on,” he said.

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