Officials Fear Voter Anger Could Boost Tax Amendment

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 5, 2008

Anti-tax e-mail messages lit up the Montgomery County Council inbox in the days after the panel signed off on a new budget in spring. The deal raised property taxes for the average homeowner by about 13 percent, increased the local energy tax and left raises for public employees untouched.

"You have exceeded our pain limit," Terry Fletcher of Silver Spring wrote. "We can't take any more."

"I want to reiterate my shock and dismay that the County Council has seen fit to increase our taxes once again," wrote Mitzi Schroeder of Darnestown. "You will hear from us at election time."

Neither County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) nor any council members are on the November ballot. But local politicians and labor and civic leaders fear that anti-tax sentiment and turmoil in the financial markets could fuel support for the latest incarnation of the Ficker amendment.

Ficker refers to Robin Ficker, the political gadfly, onetime state legislator and Bethesda lawyer turned real estate broker who has spent thousands of dollars of his money to petition referendums to curb taxes in Montgomery County since 1976.

Voters will be asked Nov. 4 to decide whether to amend the county's charter to make it more difficult for the nine-member council to exceed the limit on property tax revenue. Ficker's proposal would increase from seven to nine the number of votes required to surpass the cap that ties increases to roughly the rate of inflation.

Ficker says his amendment would serve as a safeguard for Montgomery's homeowners and would empower individual council members to "make a difference" by essentially giving one person veto power in budget talks.

"The people in Rockville have showed no inclination to control spending," he said of the county's elected officials.

None of Ficker's low-tax measures has been successful. But opponents remember how close Ficker came to prevailing in 1994, when he tried to roll back the county income tax rate.

Jerry Pasternak, who worked to defeat Ficker's efforts as an adviser to former county executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), sees similarities to 1994. That year, Ficker won 49.4 percent of the vote. Then, as now, elected officials had raised taxes and trimmed government services in what Pasternak called a "deadly combination" for voters.

"That's when they say, 'A pox on all your houses.' It's going to be a tough, tough fight," he said.

Council members have busted the limit on property tax revenue four times since the cap was approved by voters in 1990, including this year. And budget problems persist.

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