Federal credit unions are not subject to the District of Columbia's new "public safety" fee, which became effective June 14 to help balance the district's fiscal 1994 budget, according to a legal opinion by the National Credit Union Administration.

The district council is set to take a preliminary vote today to make the one-time fee permanent to finance debt service on a proposed $200 million sports arena. The fee applies to gross receipts of businesses, including nonprofits, and is projected to raise $34 million in revenue in fiscal 1994, which ends Sept. 30. The legislation to make the fee permanent would exclude nonprofits.

The success of the fee is being closely watched by other municipalities.

In a July 11 letter to credit union members, the District of Columbia Credit Union League and Affiliates said the fee is a tax that would be paid on the income of credit unions. However, the group said, the Federal Credit Union Act exempts federal credit unions from such a tax.

Robert M. Fenner, general counsel to the National Credit Union Administration, told the league that gross receipts are a form of income and that the federal law exempts credit unions from all income and franchise taxes.

The fee ranges from $25 to $8,400 per business, and was to be paid to the district by last Friday, said Rick Wieczorek, president of the credit union league.

Wieczorek said credit unions have the option of not paying the fee or paying it under protest to prevent penalties and interest 'from accruing if refund claims are made later.

-- Martha M. Canan

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