An unlikely coalition of business leaders, teachers groups and labor unions is mounting an aggressive bid to lift the lid on Anne Arundel County's 8-year-old tax cap, betting that voters will accept higher property taxes if it means better schools and improved services.
Today, organizers of the volunteer-led effort plan to submit the 10,000 signatures needed to let voters decide in November whether to alter a provision that was added to the county charter in 1992. It limits growth in property tax revenue to 4.5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower.
In Maryland, only Prince George's County has a similar law.
As of last night, more than 12,000 voters had signed petitions, said Kathy Nieberding of Citizens for a Competitive Anne Arundel County. That group supports a provision that would limit growth in property tax revenue to 4.5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is higher. The proposed change is not minor considering that inflation has hovered at or below 3 percent in recent years.
If the petitions are certified, organizers will have the interesting - and difficult - task of convincing Anne Arundel voters that higher taxes would be a good thing.
"We know it's not going to be easy," said Bob Kramer, a longtime tax cap opponent. "The burden is on us to be able to educate people about giving this additional flexibility."
Kramer and his allies hope to paint a link between low taxes and problems such as crumbling schools and comparatively low salaries for teachers, paramedics and police officers.
Dan Nataf, who studies local issues at Anne Arundel Community College, said tax cap opponents face a steep uphill battle in the next three months.
Organizers "have to have a pervasiveness that would really make people think the scope of the problem is so bad that unless things changed, Anne Arundel is going to sink into the Chesapeake," said Nataf, who directs the college's Center for the Study of Local Issues.
Success will require an advertising campaign costing between $100,000 and $200,000, he said, lest the discussion be completely drowned out by the presidential campaign.
A poll of 429 county residents Nataf conducted in March found that 58 percent did not know the cap existed. Even so, a slight majority - 54 percent - said they did not think the cap has harmed the county's ability to deliver services.
At the moment, the blueprint for how to win voters is largely a blank page. Members of Citizens for a Competitive Anne Arundel County say their focus has been to get on the ballot, which is why they have not yet hammered out a campaign budget. Questions such as whether television ads will be part of the effort remain unanswered.
"We don't know. I'll be candid with you," said Fred Sussman, an attorney advising the group.
Nor will voters hear only one side of the issue. Robert C. Schaeffer, a Severna Park resident and author of the tax cap, has made itclear he will fight any attempt to water it down. He calls the property tax "pernicious" and says it unfairly harms elderly people on fixed incomes.
Elected officials who often complain about the tax cap - including County Executive Janet S. Owens - are expected to steer clear of the matter.
We realize this is a very hot issue," said Kramer, who owns a communications firm in Annapolis.
Owens spokesman Andrew C. Carpenter said the county executive, a Democrat, will take no position on the issue. But in the next breath, Carpenter said the cap has deprived the county of about $70 million since it was approved.
"That money would have been invested back into our communities in the form of school renovations, more police officers, more firefighters, more teachers, expanded programs for seniors and increased recreational opportunities," he said.
Since voters approved the cap, elected officials have raised property taxes by the full allowable amount in most years.
This year, Owens and the County Council raised the rate by 4 cents per $100 of value, the maximum.
Carpenter's argument about the need for greater county spending is echoed by the Annapolis and Anne Arundel Chamber of Commerce, not the kind of group that usually greets talk of higher taxes with smiles.
"We believe a quality educational system and quality public services are vital to an overall good quality of life, which businesses look to when exploring areas in which to relocate," said Sussman, who also heads the chamber's government affairs committee.
Among those who agree the cap needs to be raised is Chris Doherty of Harwood, who paused to sign a petition Saturday morning after buying groceries in Edgewater.
"I don't want to pay more in taxes, but I'd rather have a better public school system," he said, loading bags into his black Mercedes station wagon.
He added that compared to some parts of the country, his $2,000 property tax bill for a large home on 4 acres is "pretty cheap."
According to Kramer, a property tax increase of 4.5 percent would add $19 to the current tax bill for a home assessed at $150,000.