Dissent voiced on tax petition

Former GOP officials object to proposed charter amendment

`The wrong way to go about it'

Executive's ability to raise taxes would be limited

May 16, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County's Republicans are eagerly backing a petition to limit the county executive's ability to raise taxes via a charter referendum, but the party's two most prominent elder statesmen oppose the idea.

Charles I. Ecker, a two-term county executive, and Charles C. Feaga, a three-term councilman and a county executive candidate in 1998, said changing the structure of government because of one tax increase is not wise.

Both men opposed the 30 percent income tax increase pushed through last year by Democrat County Executive James N. Robey. But they refused to sign the Howard County Taxpayers Association petition -- which would require the executive to get a super-majority of the County Council to approve future tax increases -- that was promoted at the county GOP's annual Lincoln Day dinner May 7.

"I don't think we need it. It sets a bad precedent. What else is going to be next?" said Ecker, who served as the county's only Republican executive from 1990 to 1998.

"I just thought this was probably the wrong way to go about it," said Feaga, who served on the council from 1986 to 1998. "We need to take these people out of office who find the best way is to raise taxes."

The petition drive gathered about 250 signatures at the Republican dinner, short of the 300 predicted by party chairman Louis M. Pope at the event. "It's been a partisan issue for the last several years," Pope said at the packed Turf Valley Country Club dinner.

James Oglethorpe, president of the taxpayers group, said people seeking more signatures will appear at post offices this weekend in Ellicott City and Columbia, but the main effort won't begin until Memorial Day weekend.

Oglethorpe wants to collect 10,000 signatures by Aug. 16 to guarantee that a charter change will appear on the general election ballot Nov. 2.

Robey has vowed to fight the charter amendment campaign.

The charter amendment is supported by council Republicans Allan H. Kittleman and Christopher J. Merdon. They have asked the full council to approve putting the charter amendment on the ballot, though they expect the majority Democrats to refuse.

The amendment would require the county executive to get 4 of the 5 council votes for any future income or property tax increase. The executive would have to get pre-approval from the council before suggesting a tax increase.

But Ecker and Feaga's sentiments make clear that not all Republicans agree on the strategy.

Ecker recalled that angry taxpayers last year talked about trying to recall Robey from office until they found that state law doesn't allow it.

During his first year in office, in 1991, Ecker said that "if a recall were going on, I'd have been out. I eliminated 200 positions in county government, county employees didn't get a raise and 25 percent got a decrease, and I still increased [property] taxes by 14 cents. I had to do a lot of things that weren't very pleasant," he said. He pointed out that he later supported the county's $125 annual trash fee.

"I just don't think it's necessary," Ecker said of the charter change.

Feaga also warned about making structural changes in government in reaction to one tax increase.

"You've got to have the power to do something," he said, adding that if three members of the County Council and the executive agree on an action, "that's the process."

Oglethorpe, Kittleman and Merdon said they know there is some difference of opinion among Republicans, but it doesn't change their goal. Democrats are divided too, they argue.

"I respect that view," Oglethorpe said about Ecker and Feaga. "They're very good people, and that's a legitimate view to express."

However, he sees little danger of more attempts to change government if his drive is successful.

"This provides an opportunity for people to speak to this issue in Howard County," he said, pointing out that Democrats may be a majority on the County Council but that they represent only 47 percent of registered county voters. Republicans represent 35 percent and independents 18 percent. Redistricting helped the Democrats gain their council majority, he said.

"As with any issue, you're going to get two sides and two opinions. That's the good thing about democracy," Merdon said.

Kittleman reiterated that he and Merdon don't vote against every tax increase, so the charter change doesn't mean an end to higher taxes.

"If we have to pay $25 million more next year [for pensions after state cuts], I'm not going to say we can eat that," Kittleman said.

"I respect their opinion. We probably agree on 99 percent of all issues," Kittleman said.

"We differ on this one."

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