Drive to amend charter short of names, impetus

Petition on tax proposals at 30% of mid-Aug. goal

Howard County

July 08, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Despite the support of Howard County's Republican Party, the petition drive to amend the County Charter to make it harder to increase taxes might be faltering, according to its chief organizer.

"Honestly, there is a challenge to collect the remaining signatures," said James Oglethorpe, president of the Howard County Taxpayers Association, after learning that the County Council failed to approve the charter change Tuesday night - leaving his drive as the only way to put the issue on the November ballot.

Oglethorpe said he has collected about 3,000 of the 10,000 signatures needed by the mid-August deadline. To ensure enough valid names, the drive's organizers were hoping to collect at least 12,000 signatures before turning them in to the county election board.

"We're kind of behind the curve," Oglethorpe said.

The amendment offered by council Republicans Allan H. Kittleman and Christopher J. Merdon would require approval of a super majority of four out of the five council members before a county executive could even propose increasing income or property tax rates.

A failure to collect enough signatures would reverse even Democrats' predictions that the names would be easily obtained. County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat whose 30 percent income tax increase last year prompted the call to limit taxing authority, has said repeatedly that it would be easy to get people to sign a petition to stop tax increases. In just a few weeks last summer, more than 7,000 taxpayers signed petitions in a failed bid to try to reverse the tax increase, but Oglethorpe said time has cooled the anger.

"The issue is not resonating" with voters after a year's time, said Oglethorpe.

The taxpayers association relies completely on volunteers who typically patrol eight locations looking for names - but only on weekends.

"We just really started getting signatures," Oglethorpe said, despite a vigorous start in May at the county GOP's Lincoln Day dinner, where party organizers passed clipboards and collected about 250 names to start the ball rolling.

Republican Party leaders will meet Wednesday with Oglethorpe to discuss, among other things, "how realistic his goals are," said party Chairman Howard Rensin.

Democratic Party Chairwoman Wendy Fiedler considers the lack of signatures good news.

"Howard County has a very well-educated voting base," Fiedler said. "It's not as easy as everybody might have thought it would be. I take it as encouraging that they are having a hard time."

Other factors might also be hurting the drive.

Patrick Dornan, the original president of the group and organizer of last summer's petition drive, virtually dropped out of the effort this year because of personal issues.

In addition, the county's two most prominent Republican elder statesmen, former two-term executive Charles I. Ecker and three-term councilman Charles Feaga, have said they oppose the move to change the charter, contending that it is too drastic a move in response to one tax increase.

Democrats have argued that without the extra $40 million the tax increase produced for the fiscal year that began July 1, the county would have had to drastically cut public services this year - including education and public safety.

Robey has vowed to oppose the charter change if it gets on the November ballot, on the grounds that an elected executive and a majority of three on the council should have the right to raise taxes. To change that system, Democrats have argued, would hamstring an elected county government and give the minority party too much power.

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