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Assembly Session Proves Good to Herndon

While the budget monopolized the attention of most everyone in Virginia, the Town of Herndon's legislative agenda made its way through the General Assembly with relative ease.

The mayor and Town Council had asked local representatives Del. Tom Rust (R-86) and Sen. Janet Howell (D-32) to carry two bills forward: the first would prohibit the county from collecting a so-called cell-phone tax within town limits if the town has one in place, and the other allows the town to raise its penalties for drunk-in-public offenses.

The cell-phone tax bill is awaiting the governor's signature and it seems the town already has the authority it needs regarding the drunk-in-public penalties.

"The Town Council's legislative program was met with great success," said Richard Kaufman, the town attorney.

THE TOWN OF HERNDON had requested the General Assembly give Herndon proprietary rights over the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in regards to its consumer utility tax on mobile telecommunications after both jurisdictions implemented competing taxing ordinances in April 2003. To avoid Herndon residents being taxed twice, the Town Council suspend its tax collection from February to November 2004, while also pursuing the General Assembly's assistance. Any taxes collected by the town before the suspension took place was to be refunded.

At the time, it was estimated the county would collect $280,000 from its cell-phone tax from town residents.

"We resolved the dispute between the county and the town over the commercial cell phone bill," said Rust. "It passed through the House and the Senate and is on its way to the governor to be signed."

Kaufman said once the bill is signed, he will recommend the Town Council approve an ordinance that reverses the tax suspension.

REGARDING drunk-in-public penalties, town officials sought the ability to increase the penalties to a class 2 misdemeanor, which could equate to up to six months in jail and/or a fine of $500 for a second or subsequent arrest. Currently, the penalty for drunk in public is a $250 fine.

"The purpose of this bill is to strengthen the town's ability to deal with public intoxication," Kaufman said. "We wanted more intensive penalties."

Turns out, the General Assembly believes the town already has the authority it needs to change the penalties, said Rust.

"There was a lot of discussion on this one about modifying it to reduce the penalties, which got away from the jail time," Rust said of the House committee debate. "Turns out the town already had the authority to do it, so I withdrew the bill. The end result is the town got what it wanted."

Actually, Kaufman said it was the Senate's house attorney that determined the town already had the authority it was seeking. To be on the safe side, he said he'll be studying the Senate's attorney's findings and looking for legal support of that conclusion.

BESIDES CARRYING FORTH Herndon's agenda, Rust had a busy session, which included patroning or co-patroning other law-enforcement bills.

One of Rust's bills to pass the House essentially makes it harder for gang members and suspected gang members to receive bail.

"It basically says that if a person is arrested and presumed to be a member of a gang … there is a rebuttable presumption against bail, which makes it harder to get bail," Rust said. "We found out, from the law-enforcement community, that while on bail, a lot of these gang members tend to skip town or intimidate witnesses. It requires a judge to be informed of the person's gang member status."

Rust said this bill did pass both the Senate and House.

A second bill, on which Rust was the co-patron, gives law enforcement officers the ability to hold a person, who is thought to be committing or already committed a crime and is believed to be an illegal citizen, for up to 72 hours without an arrest warrant.

"If the person turns out to be illegal, he or she will be turned over to the federal authorities," Rust said. "Police departments said they needed that."

Last week, the bill, whose chief patron is Del. David Albo (R-42), had passed the House and was still in the Senate.

RUST SAID THE REMAINDER of the session, about 10 days at the time of the interview on March 3, was going to be devoted to the budget.

At that time, Rust said he had no idea if a budget would be passed or if the General Assembly would be called back for a special session.

"Honest answer, I don't know," he said. "The House has passed a budget that relies on the removal of sales tax exemptions on big businesses and has sent it to the Senate. The governor's budget relies on $1.2 million of new money which was rejected by the House finance committee. The Senate's budget relies on fairly extensive new taxes, so the House, Senate and governor are all pretty far apart now."

Even so, he said he still remains hopeful the session will end on March 15 as planned.

Sen. Howell, a member of the Senate's finance committee, could not be reached for comment.