The debate over capping county property tax revenues turned surreal in Anne Arundel County last week, when combatants who once spoke of revolution or anarchy were reduced to arguing over pennies.
Proclaiming himself a "messenger of confusion but not the confuser," Deputy County Attorney David Plymyer issued an informal legal opinion that could render a proposed charter amendment virtually meaningless to homeowners' tax bills and county coffers. Amendment language placing the cap in the context of the constant yield will allow more revenue growth through taxes on new construction than the county has previously estimated, he said.
If Plymyer's interpretation stands, it would invalidate many assumptions made in the month since the state Court of Appeals struck down a ballot petition to roll back property tax revenues to 1989 levels, but upheld a provision to limit future property tax growth to 4.5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower.
Eventually, even if voters approve the measure appearing on the ballot Nov. 6, its meaning and impact probably will be determined by the same court that wrote it.
But a forum Thursday night proceeded amid much booing and applause -- as if the people will decide the ultimate fate of the initiative originally drafted by Anne Arundel Taxpayers for Responsive Government.
Seven months ago, AATRG President Robert Schaeffer launched a petition drive to roll back property tax revenues to 1989 levels, based on the group's proposition that "people become pawns of professional politicians who have learned to manipulate the system for goals and ends which have nothing to do with the best interests of the people who elected them."
Even after the Court of Appeals decision, Schaeffer insisted that his amendment would overturn the existing tax structure and force fiscal discipline on county officials.
By Thursday night, AATRG spokesman Mac Greeley was saying his group's measure is worth passing even if it produces less than $10 a year in savings to the average homeowner.
But if Plymyer is wrong and the county eventually faces a threat to education and other services, Greeley reassured the 150 people gathered at Our Shephard Lutheran Church in Severna Park that the County Council could always find other ways to tax.
Robert Kramer, a former state delegate, said Plymyer's opinion would mean that the AATRG proposal is "much ado about nothing, signifying nothing in the guise of meaningful tax relief."
A week earlier, speaking on behalf of Fairness to All County Taxpayers, a group opposed to the tax cap, Kramer had repeated the county's warning that the measure could cost $118 million in anticipated revenues over the next five years. Such a loss would cripple environmental programs, he said.
He urged voters to decide based on the "worst-case scenario" and tried to limit debate to whether citizens value their county services.
Discussion was thrown back to Schaeffer's original argument over government waste. Kramer found himself in a no-win discussion of a property tax system that allows county tax increases to creep in the back door created by rising state property assessments.
Tax-cap proponents were more concerned about being taxed out of their homes. Many hissed and laughed when AATRG opponent George Shenk said, "Because we live in a humane society, people do not lose their homes when they cannot afford to pay taxes."
Schaeffer countered that the state tax credit applies only to people "virtually on their knees and dirt-crawling poor" who live in homes assessed at $60,000 or less. The average county home is assessed at $109,700.
Any semblance of informed discussion broke down when Kramer disputed an audience member's claim that his tax bill went up 20 percent last year.
"That couldn't happen," Kramer said, attempting to explain that state law limits annual assessment increases to 10 percent.
Kramer was wrong on two counts, as he later realized: The man's last tax bill fell under a 15 percent cap because the General Assembly passed the 10 percent rule only this year, and assessment increases kick in in three-year cycles, meaning a homeowner's property value can take more than a 45-percent leap over the previous period.
When voters cast their ballots on the proposed charter amendment, their minds will be crowded with equal measures of the anger, confusion and ignorance that have shaped the debate.
The anger has built for months between citizens who believe their tax dollars have been squandered and their neighbors, who fear the measure would undermine cherished county services.
Over the next 16 days, advocates and opponents will continue blaming each other for the confusion and ignorance that burden the voters. But there is blame enough to share abundantly, as both sides continue making assumptions and dubious claims about how the tax cap would work.