Group seeking coalition on Shore

Wicomico residents look beyond tax win

April 08, 2001|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

SALISBURY - As far as Don Coffin is concerned, the overwhelming victory his group of tax protesters won at the polls last fall accomplished a lot more than clamping a lid on county spending - it also planted a seed.

Following up on their referendum victory that wiped out Wicomico County's first real estate transfer tax and imposed a 2 percent limit on annual increases in county tax revenues, members of VOICE (Voters Opposed to Increased City/County Expenditures) are looking to extend their reach.

In the past month, VOICE leaders have huddled with like-minded citizens from three lower Eastern Shore counties. They're vowing to be a force in local elections next year, and despite skepticism that the counties don't have much in common, there's talk of a coalition.

VOICE members are considering fielding a slate of candidates in the next election or, Coffin says, developing their version of the "Contract with America" that was championed by conservative congressional leaders nearly a decade ago. They're also mulling a ballot fight for an elected school board in Wicomico.

"We're not just an anti-tax group; it's broader than that," says Coffin, a Salisbury real estate agent. "What we're about is making government more responsive and accountable. If we could get more counties involved, it could be the beginning of a new political revolution on the Shore."

Coffin says VOICE has received inquiries from people in Dorchester, Somerset and other counties who are interested in launching their own tax fights.

The group has met with Concerned Citizens of Worcester County, a 4-year-old group of activists who engineered a coup at the ballot box in fall - a referendum vote establishing an elected school board.

"They were interested in an elected school board initially, but there's merit to those of us on the Shore cooperating in a number of ways," says Reggie Hancock, a former county commissioner who heads the Worcester citizens group. "Truly, the time has come to rein in the size and cost of government. The big spenders are at every level of government. This is a way to let government know the grass-roots are dissatisfied."

The tax revolt began in Wicomico last summer after the Republican-controlled County Council passed a 1 percent real estate transfer tax and a 46-cent increase in the property tax rate to $2.71 per $100 of assessed value - the fourth-highest rate in Maryland. In a well-financed campaign led primarily by the development and real estate industry, VOICE gathered nearly 18,000 signatures on petitions and won handily in November.

Wicomico officials, including Sheriff Hunter Nelms and schools Superintendent William Middleton, joined teachers, firefighters and other public employees who warned of drastic cuts in county services.

County Council President L. Russell Molnar, who presided over the tax increase and opposed what he calls "government by referendum," says the VOICE message might be attractive to voters in other counties.

"If you consider the fact that it's always easy to be against something, there's always going to be a ready audience," Molnar says. "But whenever you limit your elected officials, you limit the programs you can provide."

Helen Schofferstall, president of the Worcester County Teachers Association, says any similar tax or revenue restriction in her county would be felt in the school system, especially in teacher salaries that are crucial to recruiting in a tight job market.

"Any time you hear people talking about tax cuts, it doesn't bode well for education," she says.

But Schofferstall points out that tourism in Ocean City gives Worcester's tax base a significant boost, and that the county's tax rate of $1.74 is the second-lowest in the state - providing little incentive for tax limits.

Jim McGinniss, one of the founders of Concerned Citizens for Worcester, says the organization is more interested in development issues highlighted by the 33 percent population increase during the past decade. But the citizens group is likely to be involved in races for County Council, Ocean City's council and new school board seats.

"We're all concerned about taxes, but frankly, we'd rather put a cap on the [number of] people," McGinniss says. "But there are similarities between [the two groups]. After our first meeting, we all went home with the admonition, `Think of people who can run.'"

Jim Wandell, a retired federal government worker in Crisfield, has followed the emergence of VOICE closely. He says many in Somerset are receptive to limiting taxes. But the county does not have a home rule charter - meaning any referendum placed on the ballot is a nonbinding straw vote.

"The first big hurdle would be going to the General Assembly delegation to approve a change allowing for direct referendum," Wandell says. "I think it could happen. I think stretching out and looking to make allies is a good idea. I think Somerset could be swept along."

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