Howard County's two Republican councilmen have proposed an amendment to the county charter that would require at least four of the five council members to pass an increase in income or property tax rates.
"A tax increase should be a convincing enough argument to get four or five [council members] to agree to it," said Christopher J. Merdon, who represents Ellicott City and Elkridge. "If you can't, you haven't stated your case clearly enough."
Merdon and western Howard Councilman Allan H. Kittleman said they were prompted by the 30 percent income tax rate increase supported by the three Democratic members of the council last year -- one of four tax-rate increases in five years.
As a result, Howard's tax rate shot up from 2.45 percent -- the third lowest in Maryland -- to the legal limit of 3.2 percent. Spending also increased 9.3 percent.
"I just think with what happened last year that this is a really good time to give people in Howard County a chance to vote on it," Kittleman said.
But two other councilmen thought the increases were necessary. "The current budget would have $40 million less in revenue had we gone along with their plan from last year," said Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat. "I think they need to specifically tell the citizens of Howard County, line by line, what they would cut to make that reduction."
"For them to be talking about something like this without talking about the actual ramifications to the county ... it's no good," said west Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman.
Under the current system, if council members do not support a tax increase in the budget submitted by the county executive, they must make the cuts themselves to make up for the missing revenue.
The proposal would make two changes in that process. It would require the county executive to first request authorization from the council to include additional revenue. If a supermajority, or four of the five members, support that increase, then the executive could submit his proposed budget based on the additional funds. A supermajority would also have to vote in favor of the new budget.
By the time the council receives the budget, "you've already had special interest groups and department directors anticipating that in their budget," Merdon said. "It's a lot harder to take money out of the budget than it is not to have it in there at all."
"We didn't want to make it impossible to raise taxes," Kittleman said. "We just wanted to make it more difficult."
David A. Rakes, a Democrat who represents east Columbia, thought the suggested process was too difficult.
"It sort of hobbles the county executive," Rakes said. "He has to commit to a specific amount. ... It's a little too binding."
"It is cumbersome," Guzzone agreed.
Merdon said that more than three council members supported a fire tax increase in 2001. He expected the same to happen with the excise tax on new homes that the state legislature just passed.
"This isn't raising the bar above what's possible," he said.
The timing of budgets can be critical. Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, said that according to Howard's charter, the county executive must submit a budget 70 days before the next fiscal year -- about the end of April.
Because the executive's request comes in the form of a resolution, it would have to be approved by the council at least a month before the budget is submitted for approval. With a state deadline of April 1 to pass the budget, "that doesn't give us a lot of time to react," Wacks said.
"Often what happens with our budget is dependent on what happens in Annapolis," Wacks said. "There's an uncertainty level to what kind of funding is going to be available."
Kittleman dismissed that concern. "They probably have most of their numbers down pretty good" long before the state budget is passed, he said. Kittleman added that the executive always seeks the authority even if ultimately it is not used.
Kittleman and Merton will prefile the legislation today. It is to be introduced next month. A public hearing is scheduled for next month.
A council supermajority would have to vote in favor of putting the proposed charter amendment on the ballot for the general election in November, said Sheila M. Tolliver, the council administrator. If voters accept the change, County Executive James N. Robey would have to abide by the new procedure in preparing the 2006 budget.
Kittleman and Merdon might test the amendment themselves as potential candidates for county executive in 2006. "I'm comfortable with it," Merdon said.
"If I can't convince four people we need a tax increase, how am I going to convince Howard County that we need a tax increase?" he asked.