Limits pressed for tax laws in Montgomery

Similar ballot issue has failed three times in past nine years

Duncan fears for school funding

Protesters also target increases in Howard with proposed charter change

Howard County

December 23, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Montgomery County voters have petitioned a proposal for a tougher property tax limit on next year's election ballot, election officials confirmed yesterday, setting off the fourth such effort there in the past decade.

"The [Montgomery] population is increasing slowly, but the county budget is up 50 percent in six years," said Robin Ficker, a Republican gadfly whose property tax limit petitions were certified Thursday by the Montgomery County election board.

Ficker's amendment would remove the Montgomery council's ability to override a 1990 inflation-linked limit on property tax increases. He has attempted similar tax limit ballot issues three times since 1994, but all failed.

The new effort occurs after approval of a $3 billion county budget in the spring - a plan that raised taxes on income, cellular phones and wired telephones, and on energy use.

Ficker said anyone who thinks it's easy to collect 10,000 signatures - even in a county of about 900,000 - should think again.

"It's easy to talk about putting questions on the ballot," he said. "It's a lot harder to get the signatures."

The impulse to limit new taxes is a sign of the times - a reaction to revenue shortages that have produced tax increases in half of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions this year. The movement echoes the spate of tax limit initiatives a dozen years ago that resulted in a 10 percent a year statewide property assessment ceiling, with lower limits in some counties. In addition, tax limit laws have existed for years in Anne Arundel, Talbot and Prince George's counties.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat considering a run for governor, dismissed Ficker as a constant critic who has "lost every time he's tried to do this before."

If Ficker is successful, Duncan said, "it would set a property tax limit in Montgomery County which would jeopardize our ability to fund our schools. He's bound and determined to ruin the quality of life in Montgomery County."

Duncan said his budget preserved $30 million in school funding last year and about $44 million this year.

Next door in Howard County, tax protesters also plan a charter change that would make it harder to raise taxes - a reaction to a 30 percent increase in local income tax rates scheduled to take effect Jan. 1.

Howard County Executive James N. Robey's current budget increased spending 9.3 percent this fiscal year - mostly for schools - and the income tax change took Howard from Maryland's third lowest rate (2.45 percent) to the legal limit of 3.2 percent.

Two Howard Republican council members are working with tax protesters to produce a charter amendment for council introduction in February, when recommendations from Howard's Charter Review Commission also are due. Commission Chairwoman Ann M. Balcerzak said her group discussed suggestions for limiting tax increases in the charter but has decided not to recommend one.

The two Republican councilmen - Allan H. Kittleman of western Howard and Christopher J. Merdon of Ellicott City, both potential county executive candidates in 2006 - are considering ideas ranging from an amendment to require a super-majority (4 of 5) vote for any tax increase, to a charter change allowing a referendum on tax increases, Kittleman said.

"We haven't come up with any final things we want to do," Kittleman said yesterday. "We will have something."

Kittleman and Merdon met Thursday with James Oglethorpe and former county Councilman Darrel E. Drown - leaders of the Howard County Taxpayers Association.

Oglethorpe said he plans to spend the next several months organizing the group.

If the council rejects a Kittleman-Merdon proposed charter change, proponents would have until Aug. 9 to turn in 10,000 certified signatures to the county election board to put the issue on the November ballot.

Kittleman said "a super-majority is probably the one I'd support," adding that he is not comfortable with a charter change that would allow tax increases to be petitioned to referendum.

Howard council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, pointed out that "we have limitations already. There is a legal limit that the income tax can be increased and a limit on [property] assessment increases of no greater than 5 percent."

Drown, a Republican, said he objected to the county's spending increase, though Howard raised property tax rates 14 cents in 1991 under Republican County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

"I know there are times when you do have to increase taxes at a higher rate, but we laid off people," Drown said.

Robey increased spending and gave employees a pay raise despite falling income tax revenues, Drown said. "No one looked at how to reduce staffing," he said.

Howard tax protesters collected more than 7,000 signatures last summer to try to force Robey's income tax increase to referendum, but their effort was declared illegal. Kittleman and Merdon voted against the budget containing the tax increase so a charter change requiring four council votes to increase taxes would have prevented that budget's passage.

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