Montgomery tax protesters battle charter amendment they once sought

October 11, 1990|By Thom Loverro | Thom Loverro,Suburban Washington Bureau of The Sun

ROCKVILLE -- A Montgomery County tax-revolt group finds itself in the unusual position of opposing a charter amendment to limit government spending that it worked for months to put on the November ballot.

The group, Fairness in Taxation, consists of residents who balked at high property tax assessments earlier this year and sought relief through a charter amendment that would limit county property tax increases to 75 percent of the inflation rate in the area.

Four County Council members, fearful of support for th proposal -- despite a 16-cent reduction in the tax rate and the statewide cap on assessments -- worked out a compromise with FIT that would limit tax increases to the area's rate of inflation.

The council placed that amendment, Question F, on the ballot with FIT's support.

However, efforts to abandon the original proposal were thwarte by political gadfly Robin Ficker, who sued to force FIT to go forward with the petitions calling for the original amendment, Question I. He argued that the compromise did not represent the intent of the 13,000 people who had signed the petitions to put the original amendment on the ballot.

So the original proposal remains on the ballot along with th compromise. Both allow the council to override the cap if seven of the nine council members approve. The county's seven-member council will expand to nine in January.

"The old amendment had a couple of very serious defects in it, said Robert Denny, a Brookdale writer and FIT leader. "That's why we went with the new one."

He said the original amendment used an inaccurate measure o the

county budget in determining proposed spending limitations and did not take into account a proposed tax district in Shady Grove, where developers would be taxed based on the infrastructure needed to accommodate their projects.

The compromise amendment allows more room for growth an expansion of the tax base, he said. It exempts new construction, rezoned property and any developmental district property, he said. It also calls for a spending affordability limit to be established each year by the council before the budget process begins.

"Question I is dead in the water and never would have been o the ballot if not for [Mr. Ficker's] foolishness," Mr. Denny said.

Mr. Ficker, a Potomac lawyer who lost in last month's Republica primary for a County Council seat, said he was protecting the rights of those who petitioned for the original amendment.

"It turned out some County Council members got very nervous about seeing several property tax limitations on the ballot right next to their names," he said. "They decided to mask their four-year record of high property taxes with their own ballot initiative."

When FIT leaders announced plans to abandon the origina amendment for the compromise, Mr. Ficker took the issue to court. He lost in the county Circuit Court and the state Court of Special Appeals before the state Court of Appeals ruled that the original amendment should be put on the ballot.

In addition to these two amendments, voters will have two othe tax-limitation proposals, both initiated by Mr. Ficker.

Question G would cap the county's tax rate at the 1988 level -- nTC $3.01 per $100 of assessed property value. The current rate is $2.81 per $100. Question H would prohibit the county from spending money on capital projects.

A coalition of 23 organizations called Save Our Services i campaigning against all of the tax proposals.

The group includes the Committee for Montgomery, a group o civic and community leaders formed last year to lobby for the county's interests in the state legislature.

Nancy K. Schneider, president of the county chapter of th League of Women Voters and a member of the Committee for Montgomery, said passage of the charter amendments would undermine the committee's work.

"If these ballots should pass, it will make our jobs that muc more difficult and give us less credibility in Annapolis," she said.

Brett Weiss, a lawyer and civic activist, said the proposals woul keep elected officials from responding to the needs of county residents. "The government needs to be able to make these decisions without a straitjacket," he said.

But Mr. Denny said property owners have shouldered too muc of the financing for county government.

"We have a major need to spread the tax burden here," he said. "Homeowners and apartment dwellers have paid 80 percent of the county bills, and that is blatantly unfair."

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