FRONT ROYAL, Va. — This small Shenandoah Valley town must wait to become a battleground for the growing public debate about whether the General Assembly overreached in assessing high fees for Virginia drivers who break the law. The Town Council last night postponed a decision on whether to stop its 36-officer police force from enforcing most "abuser fees" laws for motorists.
"It seems to me it may be appealing in a kind of small guy versus big guy way, but I'm not sure that is the answer here," said council member Stanley W. Brooks Jr., who proposed postponing the vote. "There is no sense using a hammer when a feather will do."
The decisive vote from the five-member council, vice mayor and mayor was settled by Mayor James M. Eastham, who said the issue had taken on a life of its own overnight.
Shortly after the 4-3 vote last night, a small group of Front Royal residents returned to the Town Council chamber with makeshift signs that read "Not in our Town."
"We didn't want it," Malia Wells, 41, a stay-at-home mom, yelled at council members. "There are 26 people tomorrow who are going to be hurting. Who is going to pay?" Ms. Wells was referring to the drivers who could face the new fees this morning in District Court.
"Real lives will be affected by this in ways that perhaps this town council and perhaps the state assembly don't appreciate," Jim Naccash, 47, a computer-training teacher, told The Washington Times. "Maybe to some of these high-paid politicians a $1,000 or $3,000 penalty doesn't mean anything, but to a lot of people that can be life-changing in a very negative way."
After the meeting, council member Thomas H. Sayre, a Republican who led the effort, said the council missed an opportunity to send a message to state lawmakers in Richmond that they cannot overlook what is best for small communities.
"It would not have hurt us to pass this," he said. "It would have let a judge decide."
No state lawmakers attended the meeting, which drew 30 to 40 people.
Under the proposal, in-state drivers convicted of drunken driving still would have been assessed the new $3,000 fee, but officers would not have had to enforce lesser fees for such charges as reckless or aggressive driving.
The fees are part of the multibillion-dollar plan the state lawmakers approved this year to improve transportation around the state, particularly in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
The transportation plan was hailed as a "landmark" agreement between state Democrats and Republicans and within the Republican Party, after state lawmakers tried and failed for years to pass such a plan.
However, Front Royal's effort and legal questions being raised about the constitutionality of a regional taxing authority in Northern Virginia have cast doubt upon the package, approved by the Republican-controlled General Assembly and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat.
The package relies on the budget surplus, long-term borrowing, the increased fees for bad drivers, a $10 increase on vehicle-registration fees and taxes imposed by regional taxing authorities in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia.
The $900 to $3,000 abuse fees are expected to generate about $60 million annually.
Much of the public scrutiny focuses on the fact that the fees are not applied to out-of-state drivers. Others say the fees are an underhanded way for lawmakers to say they avoided a tax increase while delivering a roads package.
Had Front Royal officials approved their proposal, it likely would have led to a legal battle to determine whether Virginia jurisdictions must collect the fees.
Before last night's meeting, a spokesman for Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, a Republican, said, "A Virginia locality cannot choose to opt out of this statewide policy. ... Localities cannot make such a decision absent legislative authority to do so.
"We understand that some local officials are opposed to the policy decision made by the General Assembly, but the proper venue for such opposition lies in the General Assembly in 2008, not in the courts."
Mr. Sayre, a lawyer and vice chairman of the Warren County Republican Party, said the ultimate goal is to encourage Mr. Kaine to reconsider calling a special session of the General Assembly to consider revising the law.
Every year, Front Royal officials adopt into their town code changes made to state highway regulations. The vote last night would have given officials the authority to go into the code and remove the abuser fees section.
Since the fees kicked in July 1, lawmakers have been inundated with complaints. More than 150,000 people have signed an online petition calling for a repeal, and Democratic challengers in the Nov. 6 election are using the complaints to cut into the credibility of Republican incumbents.
The public outcry has been so loud that state Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, Fairfax Republican, who helped craft the transportation deal, has joined other lawmakers in calling for the assembly to revisit the issue during a special session.
But Mr. Kaine, backed by Republican leaders, has rejected calls for a special session.
If that remains the case, the General Assembly will take up the fees issue when it convenes in January for its regular session.
At a hearing today in Henrico General District Court, lawyers plan to contend that because nonresidents are exempt, the fees breach the U.S. Constitution's principle of equal protection under the law.
Next month, an Arlington Circuit Court judge is scheduled to decide whether the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, an unelected body, should have the power to levy the seven new taxes and fees it approved earlier this month.
The series of local revenue enhancements represent a significant amount — an estimated $300 million annually — of the multibillion-dollar transportation compromise.
Critics, including state Delegate Robert M. Marshall, Prince William County Republican, and the Republican-controlled Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, have argued the state constitution bars an unelected body from wielding such powers.
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