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Howard lawmakers consider strengthening massage rules

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Howard County lawmakers are looking to adopt more stringent requirements that would make applicants for massage establishments and taxicab driver's licenses undergo nationwide criminal background checks.

The bill being considered by the county delegation, at the request of County Executive Ken Ulman, would require going beyond the current standard of statewide background checks to increase safety for cab riders. Advocates say the requirements would also provide a check against brothels disguising themselves as massage parlors.

It's the latest move by the county to control the massage business. Howard officials ramped up their efforts in the mid-1990s, and in 1995, police were cleared to engage in sexual contact in a failed attempt to attack massage parlor prostitution.

"It gives us an easier venue to question someone," said Bob Frances, director of the county's department of inspections, licenses and permits, of this year's bill. He said the measure would allow the department to deny licenses based on applicants' criminal history.

The proposed legislation would exclude licensed medical professionals, who must undergo criminal background checks before receiving a license from the state Board of Chiropractic and Massage Therapy Examiners.

Sen. James N. Robey, who served as the county's police chief when earlier regulations were put in place, said police often found during his tenure that workers who had criminal records in other states were employed at places of prostitution disguised as massage parlors.

Council members voted in 1997 to make it illegal for licensees to massage a client of the opposite sex. It excluded certified massage therapists and other medical professionals.

In 1994, the County Council passed regulations to list operators' police records, but critics said the law had too many exemptions that left nearly all of the county's massage parlors unregulated.

If passed, the bill would affect seven massage establishments, 100 taxicab drivers and four cab company operators. Frances said the bill would likely be amended to include pawnshop owners, which would affect fewer than half a dozen county shops.

The cost of the nationwide check would be passed on to license applicants, raising the fee by $19.25 to $37.25.

Alfred LaGasse, the CEO of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association, said the Rockville-based organization supports the criminal history check as long as it is done quickly so prospective drivers can start working.

He said most jurisdictions have state background checks in place, but "we recommend that it goes beyond that."

"There aren't a lot of jobs where you're alone with the person who conducts the work for you," he said. "That is a reason for concern."

The bill requiring nationwide background checks is one of nine local measures planned by members of the Howard County delegation for the upcoming session of the General Assembly.

One bill would extend the sale of alcohol on golf courses, which advocates say would make Howard's establishments more competitive with those in neighboring counties. The bill would allow golf courses to serve beer, wine and liquor from 6:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. the next day. County golf courses can now serve alcohol beginning at 11 a.m.

County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, who heads the Board of License Commissioners, which issues licenses to sell alcohol, testified in support of the bill. She said the majority of surrounding counties allow golf courses to sell alcohol beginning between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m.

The delegation is also considering a bill that would allow fire departments and veterans organizations to hold gambling events as fundraisers.

Another measure would permit the school system to allow businesses to not pay workers' compensation fees to the county when engaging students as unpaid interns. Sen. Allan Kittleman, the Republican who introduced the bill, said it would help encourage employers to take on students, providing them with work experience.

Five of the bills being considered are requests for state bond funding for local projects, including $150,000 for renovations to the historic Carroll Baldwin Hall in Savage and $500,000 for a new 45,000-square-foot public recreation center. The recreation center will be located at the Hilltop Housing complex in Ellicott City, which will be rebuilt to include market-rate renters in the mixed-income community.

Another $150,000 would pay for improvements to the South Branch Park in Sykesville.

Michael P. Miller, the mayor of Sykesville in Carroll County, spoke out in favor of the bill for the park, which is close to downtown Sykesville. He called the park "the scenic transition between two jurisdictions."

Other proposals include:

•A bill requesting $130,000 in state bond funding for Supported Living Inc. to use on renovations to an assisted-living facility in Columbia that houses adults with developmental disabilities.

•A bill requesting $30,000 in state funding for a Greenleaf Community Association loan to replace dilapidated sidewalks in one of the oldest communities in Columbia.

The legislative session is scheduled to begin Jan. 11.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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