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County asks attorney to probe billing rights

October 13, 2004|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

The Washington County Commissioners asked the deputy county attorney on Tuesday to find out whether they can bill organizations for providing police, fire and ambulance services at events.

County Deputy Attorney John Martirano said after the meeting he didn't think it would be legal to charge the groups, citing constitutional reasons. He said, however, that he would look into the issue.

"You just can't come up with an outrageous amount that would inhibit someone's free speech," Martirano said after the meeting.

The issue came up at a County Commissioners meeting during a discussion about a request from the Sharpsburg fire and ambulance companies to be reimbursed for their services at the World Knights of the Ku Klux Klan's march on Aug. 28.

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The total cost for both companies was $905.96, and the commissioners on Tuesday agreed to reimburse the companies.

County staff members said they expected to hear from the Washington County Sheriff's Department and Maryland State Police about their expenses for the KKK event.

On the day of the rally, Sheriff Charles F. Mades said the Sheriff's Department might have racked up event-related costs of $20,000 to $25,000.

Commissioner John C. Munson said he'd agree to reimburse the Sharpsburg companies, but he didn't think fire and rescue groups should expect to be paid back by the county for providing services at events. He said the county already contributes "quite a bit to fire and rescue."

"I just don't think all the taxpayers should be supporting that," Munson said.

Munson and Commissioner Doris J. Nipps questioned at the meeting whether the county could charge groups a fee for the services when they apply for permits to hold events.

"My feeling is we would not be able to do that, because if someone has the legal rights to have a demonstration, obviously, we as a county ... make a decision to deploy our services around for the protection and benefit of our citizens," Martirano said. "Our feeling is we're not going to be able to bill the KKK, for example."

Sharpsburg Town Attorney Charles Wagaman said last week he will ask the Town Council at November's meeting if they want to charge an administration fee for parades, processions and rallies.

Wagaman said he researched the issue after going through the permit process recently when the World Knights of the Ku Klux Klan applied for a permit for a parade and rally.

The town does not charge an administrative fee for that permit, Wagaman said. A Supreme Court decision ruled that a fee for such a permit can be charged as long as the language is content-neutral, he said.

Staff writer Julie E. Greene contributed to this story.

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