Frederick taxpayers charge property tax is illegally enacted

June 30, 1991|By Thom Loverro | Thom Loverro,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

FREDERICK -- Raising taxes has been called many things -- few, if any, of them good -- including "immoral" and "a necessary evil."

But a group of taxpayers in Frederick County say that an increase in county property taxes is illegal, and they have gone to court to stop it, charging that three commissioners violated open-meetings and ethics laws in the budget process.

The Frederick County Taxpayers in Action have filed a lawsuit against the county commissioners, three of whom voted June 18 to raise the property tax rate by 8 cents to $2.27 per $100 of assessed value.

What made the tax increase controversial was that it was to cover a 3 percent pay raise for county teachers. Critics argued that because of the current recession, no pay raises should have been granted.

That cry has gone up in other jurisdictions in the state, such as Howard County, where County Executive Charles I. Ecker refused to fund 6 percent pay raises that were due teachers as part of their contract.

Howard County, which faced a deficit and laid off some workers, still had to enact a 14 cent tax increase. Frederick County has not been hit as hard. Without the pay raise, its property tax rate could have remained at the current $2.21 rate.

The suit filed June 12 charges that three of the commissioners -- Chairman Ronald Sundergill and colleagues David P. Gray and Gail T. Bowerman -- violated the state open-meetings law by talking about the tax increase and the budget at a closed May 25 meeting at Ms. Bowerman's house.

The two other members of the five-member commission -- Sue Ann Yingling and Bruce Reeder, both of whom opposed the tax increase -- were not informed of the meeting or a subsequent news conference, the suit charges.

"This sounds like some sort of Little League, when you only notify certain people to get your quorum and get your deal all lined up," said William T. Glasgow, a Columbia lawyer representing the taxpayers group. "It's sort of like, 'Let's give them a trial before we hang them.' "

The suit seeks to have the property tax rate rolled back to the $2.02 constant-yield level, which is the tax rate that would raise the same amount next year as was raised by this year's property taxes, until a new rate can be set properly.

The taxpayers group has also charged in the suit that Mr. Sundergill and Ms. Bowerman should have excused themselves from voting on the budget because they have relatives who would benefit from any pay increases. A sister of Mr. Sundergill is a teacher, and Ms. Bowerman's son works as a county emergency dispatcher.

One of the plaintiffs in the suit is John Ashbury, a weekly newspaper columnist who owns a property management firm. "The thing that our group wants most out of this is that the court tells these three commissioners that you have to follow the law and you have to play by the rules," he said.

Mr. Ashbury helped to form the taxpayers group last year -- shortly after he failed in his second attempt to be elected to the County Commission -- as a watchdog group to monitor elected officials. He said the group has about 25 members but is attracting more interest as a result of the tax increase.

While the group had opposed the property tax increase, it was outraged by the private meeting of the three commissioners, Mr. Ashbury said. "I think the tax hike has hurt the taxpayers, and what's worse is that they did this surreptitiously," he said. "There was no need to do what they did the way they did it."

The 3-2 split among the commissioners is not along party lines. Mr. Gray, one of the three commissioners who voted for the tax increase, is the lone Republican on the board. He called the suit "frivolous," adding, "The meeting in question had nothing to do with deliberating on budget matters. It was an attempt to report on what had happened in the budget.

"Most of the publicity to that point had been focusing only on part of the budget that dealt with teachers' salaries, and there are hundreds of items in the budget. The chairman of the board wanted to put out a press release that pointed out all the other things we had done, all in open session."

The pay increase for teachers was half the amount they were due under their contract, Mr. Gray said. He said it was important for the commissioners to try to stick to their financial commitment, in light of past broken promises to the teachers. "We faced the prospect of real labor strife with the teachers," he said. "The county had finally come to a commitment to a long-term approach to the teachers, and to have undercut that would have really been bad management on the part of the commissioners."

Ms. Bowerman also said the meeting was nothing more than an attempt to get their message out to the public about the budget by planning a news conference. "A press conference is hardly a covert activity," she said. "There was no intention to do anything in violation of the open public meetings law."

Ms. Bowerman said the two other commissioners were not invited because it was clear there was a 3-2 division on budget issues, and the two were not likely to join the three in a statement.

Mrs. Yingling, who was not part of the private meeting, called it "ill-conceived and ill-conducted. It did not serve the citizens of Frederick County very well to have done that."

However, she discounted the part of the suit charging the three commissioners with an ethics violation because they had voted for a budget involving pay raises for their relatives. "In a budget the size of the one we have in Frederick County, I am quite certain there was no driving force of personal greed at work here," she said.

Ms. Bowerman said she had expected the commission to absolve her of any conflict. "It was clear to me that when you are talking about a large group of employees, your action is not specific enough to any one relative," she said.

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