Accompanied by loud chants of "no more taxes" from a group of 35 supporters, Howard County's tax protest leader Patrick Dornan submitted referendum petitions to the county elections board yesterday seeking to block a higher local income levy.
Howard County took a very different approach to the poor economy and resulting revenue squeeze than did neighboring counties this year by enacting an income tax increase; others froze wages and one - Anne Arundel County - laid off a class of police recruits.
"I hope Howard County sees the groundswell of opposition and the 7,200 people [on the petitions], and will move to repeal this legislation," Dornan said about the income tax increase approved by the County Council on a 3-2 party line vote May 23. One sign held by a supporter read: "The boom is over. Time to suck it in."
Elections board officials later said the petitions had 7,128 names.
Laurie Spence, 36, a two-year Ellicott City resident, said she signed a petition at a supermarket on U.S. 40 and then volunteered to help gather more names.
"Howard County schools are the best in the state. Where do we draw the line?" she asked.
The group also got strong support from the county Republican Party. Party Chairman Louis M. Pope attended yesterday's event.
But County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat, repeated late yesterday that "the advice I've been given is that what they're asking for is not legal to do."
The county's "piggyback" income tax rate is to rise Jan. 1 from 2.45 percent, third-lowest in Maryland, to 3.2 percent - the legal limit. That is expected to bring in $24 million in new revenue this fiscal year and $60 million more in fiscal 2005 because the higher rate will apply for that entire budget year.
If successful, Dornan's petition drive would halt imposition of the higher tax rate until after the November 2004 elections, throwing a monkey wrench into Robey's spending plans.
Robert J. Antonetti Sr., the elections board administrator, accepted the 783 pages of signatures and told Dornan he would seek a legal opinion on the referendum proposal from Barbara Cook, the county attorney. If Cook rules that the tax increase is an appropriation and therefore not subject to referendum, Dornan and attorney William S. Heyman said there are several options.
The group could appeal the decision to Circuit Court, it could launch a drive to amend the county charter to limit local income taxes to 50 percent of the state level or it could seek to amend the county charter to freeze the property tax, Dornan said.
Charter change would require a completely new petition campaign, requiring 10,000 signatures - twice as many as a referendum.
If a charter change campaign began, Robey said he would not sit idly by.
"I owe it to the people to mount whatever effort is necessary to have that defeated," Robey said, noting that he takes the protest effort "very seriously."
Robey repeated that he believes the tax increase is vital to keep Howard County's schools, police, libraries and senior centers top-notch.
Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, agreed, saying that what worries him "is the concept that we can maintain the same quality of life and not pay for it - somehow that plays with some people."