Charter referendum is weighed by council

Amendment would make it harder to raise taxes

Howard County

May 18, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Echoes of last year's battle that resulted in a countywide tax increase drew nearly all of the speakers at last night's monthly County Council public hearing.

This time the tax fight is over a proposed charter amendment that would - if approved by county voters - make it harder for an executive to raise income taxes or property taxes.

County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat, pushed through a 30 percent income tax rate increase last spring, with support from the council's three Democrats.

"This is a golden opportunity. You can be heroes," Pat Dornan, speaking for the Howard County Taxpayers Association, told council members in urging them to vote for a charter change referendum. "Or you can continue to be the reason people want to change the government."

The proposed charter amendment would require four of the five County Council members to approve any tax increase instead of a simple majority. In addition, the county executive would have to get approval from the council before introducing an income or property tax increase.

If the council approves, the charter amendment will appear on the November ballot. But even without council approval, James Oglethorpe, president of the taxpayers association, has launched a petition drive to gather 10,000 signatures by Aug. 16 to get the issue on the ballot.

Ed Armanus, a Woodstock resident, urged the council to "trust the voters of Howard County" to decide the issue, a theme sounded by two other speakers who favor changing the charter.

Despite backing from the county's Republican Party, Dornan's group was outnumbered, mainly by Democratic Party activists who argued to keep the charter as it is, but also by speakers from the League of Women Voters and the county NAACP.

Democrat Edward Cochran, a former county executive and council member, called the proposed charter change "fundamentally anti-democratic" because democracy is based on majority rule. The power to raise or lower taxes shouldn't be "elevated" beyond other policy functions, he said.

Jenkins Odoms Jr., president of the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, called the tax proposal "wrongheaded."

"This is not only bad policy, but minority rule is out of date," he said.

Betsy Grater, co-president of the League of Women Voters, said the change "would cripple the county executive's power to propose a budget plan."

The council is to vote Friday on the budget and June 7 on other legislation, including the charter change sponsored by Republican Councilmen Allan H. Kittleman and Christopher J. Merdon.

Robey has vowed to campaign against the change, arguing that tax increases, like other policy decisions, should be made by a majority of the council acting with the executive, not by a restrictive super-majority.

Although the county Republican Party is solidly behind the petition drive, two prominent former Republican officials have said they're against changing the charter.

Charles I. Ecker, the county's only Republican executive, and Chares Feaga, a three-term former County Council member, said last week that changing the government's structure is not a wise response to an unpopular tax increase.

The proposed fiscal 2005 budget totals $968 million and contains some fee increases - for water, sewers, parking fines and 911 center telephone fees - that together should raise about $7.6 million. All but $607,980 of that would pay the increasing cost of water and sewer services from Baltimore, which owns and operates those systems. Most of the rest would come from a 15-cent increase in the monthly tax surcharge on each telephone line that supports the 911 emergency center.

The owners of several electrical companies complained about proposed higher fees for electrical permits. The electrical contractors said their costs would double or triple for work they've already contracted to complete if proposed fee increases take effect in the new budget.

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