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Property Tax Opposition Grows in Montgomery

Rising Outcry Gets County Council's Attention

By Cameron W. Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page C05

The tone of Colleen Carrigan's April 12 e-mail to the Montgomery County Council went from polite to combative in a single sentence.

Requesting a list of council members who have voted to increase property tax revenue beyond limits set in the county charter, she wrote: "Please inform these members that I will actively and adamantly lobby to ensure their defeat in upcoming elections. I will cross party lines and vote Republican in order to keep from being financially exploited as a homeowner, as will many of the neighbors to whom I have spoken."

Carrigan is assembling a group called Long Branch Citizens for Homeowners' Tax Relief.

In numbers not seen in years, Montgomery residents are writing, e-mailing and stepping up to microphones to demand an end to rising property taxes. Their numbers are still limited, but they have commanded the council's attention. With varying degrees of conviction, council members are debating measures that would provide broad and targeted property-tax relief.

The council is reviewing an expansive, $3.6 billion budget proposed by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), and next month it must approve a spending plan and set the county's tax rates.

For decades, the premise of governance in Montgomery has been the willingness of residents to pay high taxes in exchange for premium services, including some of the country's best public schools. The clamors for services typically have drowned out the cries over taxes.

At an April 7 council budget hearing, about 15 people in the audience held placards that read "TAX CAP NOW." They were outnumbered at least 4-to-1 by those wearing bright-yellow stickers printed with the phrase "SUPPORT MC!" -- a reference to Montgomery College, the county's publicly funded community college.

At such moments, it appears to be business as usual in the county. Tax protesters at the hearing included Robin Ficker, a longtime Republican anti-tax activist, and Marvin Weinman, the head of the Montgomery County Taxpayers League. The two activists rarely miss an opportunity to urge the council to embrace fiscal restraint.

This year, however, they are joined by residents who have seldom if ever contributed to the county's annual budget and tax debate. More than 60 have written the collective council since the beginning of the year -- a modest number, but more than three times the communications received on taxes in 2003 and 2004 combined, not counting a flurry last year associated with a tax-rate-reduction effort by council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg).

This year's missives don't betray any signs of an organized campaign, but their collective tone has contributed to the council's retreat on spending this spring.

"Do you remember Peter Finch in 'Network'?" E. Ann Brunk, a Wheaton widow, asked in an interview, referring to the 1976 film in which a television anchorman, played by Finch, urges people to vent their rage at the sorry state of the nation. "Well, I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore," said Brunk, quoting the movie.

"I'm sorry, but that's how I feel," she added.

Potomac resident Stuart Carroll, a business owner who has two sons in public school, has sent two e-mails to the council. In response to his first, council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) wrote to say that regardless of the percentage increase in his assessment, his property tax increase would be capped at 10 percent. "Frankly," Carroll wrote back to Perez, "taxes which increase by even 10 percent per year create an unreasonable burden on all taxpayers -- not just the poor, disabled and elderly."

William B. Davis, a retired U.S. diplomat who also lives in Potomac, took his concerns to a council "town hall" in Gaithersburg, where he pleaded with members to protect long-term residents from tax increases caused by rising real estate values.

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