Group gives up on tax-powers petition drive

Organizers sought to limit executive on increases

`It wasn't happening fast enough'

10,000 signatures needed by Aug. 16 for referendum

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

After months of effort, organizers have abandoned a Republican-backed petition drive designed to limit the Howard County executive's power to raise taxes.

James Oglethorpe, president of the Howard County Taxpayers Association, said Friday that it would be impossible to gather the 10,000 valid signatures needed by the Aug. 16 deadline to qualify a charter amendment for the November election ballot.

"It wasn't happening fast enough," he said, explaining that even with help from the county GOP, he hasn't been able to gather enough signatures. "I blame myself for not getting the drive going sooner."

Oglethorpe said he didn't want to ask volunteers to work hard for four more weeks knowing that they would come up short. All the petitions collected will be destroyed, he said.

"I'm just an amateur guy trying to do something," he said.

The next chapter in the county's tax wars likely will come in 2006, an election year.

But County Executive James N. Robey might have something to say before then.

"My hope now is with the economy returning, I'll be talking about a tax cut in the outlying years," Robey said. "That's one of our goals."

The movement began last summer after Robey and the County Council's three Democrats pushed through a 30 percent increase in the local income tax rate.

The taxpayer group quickly gathered more than 7,000 signatures from people seeking to overturn the tax increase, but that proved legally impossible.

This year, Oglethorpe supported a charter amendment proposed by Republican Councilmen Christopher J. Merdon and Allan H. Kittleman that would have required a four-vote supermajority before the executive could suggest raising income or property taxes.

The council's Democrats refused to place the amendment on the ballot, leaving the petition drive as the only way to put the charter amendment before the voters in November.

Robey and other county Democrats were pleased, saying that the drive's failure means that people support their priority of upholding the county's quality of life.

Republican Party Chairman Howard Rensin said the issue is not dead, and that the failed campaign does not reflect badly on his party.

Executive's reaction

"I'm happy for Howard County. It was a bad thing," Robey said, noting that former Republican Executive Charles I. Ecker and other Republicans agreed that the charter should not be changed because of one tax increase. "It was going to create a standard for Howard County that doesn't exist anywhere else. The [New York bond] rating agencies would have had a fit."

Rensin said the Republicans were merely supporting Oglethorpe's group, and when he decided to give up the drive, it was too late to rescue it.

"It's a cause we strongly believe in," he said, adding that if a similar situation occurs again, "the party would take the lead from the beginning."

Opposition to continue

Merdon said people who signed petitions last summer were disappointed when the issue failed to qualify for a referendum, and that discouragement hurt the effort this year. But opposition to higher taxes won't disappear, Merdon said.

"It will be an issue in 2006 that Republicans will certainly raise and that Guy Guzzone will have to answer," Merdon said.

Merdon and Kittleman, along with council Chairman Guzzone, a Democrat, are expected to run for county executive.

"I'm going to stick by what I've always stuck by," Guzzone said. "When we need to make tough decisions, we'll do that."

Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, said that "from county executive to County Council, people recognize we've got a good thing going."

"Let's not play games with these tax-cap issues," Ulman said.

Oglethorpe said his group isn't giving up.

His ultimate goal, he said, "is to somehow provide a vehicle for independent people to get involved in the process."

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