The surprise derailment last week of the 10-cent property tax cut approved by Prince George's county officials was the handiwork of a small band of civic activists led by a 21-year-old political enthusiast.
The group, which includes a research scientist, electronics specialist, cemetery manager and Georgetown University student, startled county officials by organizing a referendum drive that apparently has stymied the county's effort to raise $7 million from a new telephone tax. If the petition campaign obtains enough valid signatures, the county will have to put the tax proposal up for a vote next year.
The reason for their campaign, say group members, is a belief that the county's new power to tax telephones and other items, granted by the legislature, should be approved first by the county citizens.
With the telephone revenues now in doubt, County Executive Winfield M. Kelly has been forced to propose instead an increase in the county property tax of 4 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.
Kelly, visibly irritated with the petition organizers, said, "If this drive is successful, they must carry the blame for raising the property taxes in Prince George's County."
The leaders of the group, who call themselves Prince George's Citizens Against Nuisance Taxes (CANT), are Tim Maloney, 21, of Beltsville, a Georgetown student who also works for the National University Extension Association in College Park; H.J. Zwally, 38, of Bowie, a NASA research scientist who is also president of the Prince George's Action Coalition; Joseph Johnson, 34, of Clinton, a Navy electronics specialist; and Jack Perry, 35, of College Park, assistant manager of Catholic Cemetery and president of Prince George's County Civic Federation.
Working together since May 13, they have collected nearly 8,000 of the 12,144 signatures they need before July 1 to get the referendum on the ballot. They have already filed 5,000 names with the Maryland Secretary of State's office. The group has between 150-200 people collecting signatures.
"We hope to get this all wrapped up by June 22," said Maloney. "Then I can go to the beach."
The four men have worked together before on other civic issues, including the county charter question in 1970. This time, their cause is the omnibus tax authority approved by the legislature.
"We aren't social friends," said Johnson of the members of the group. "We just see each other when issues like this come up. Then the phones start ringing.
"This whole taxing question, whether it is a telephone tax, or whatever, is too big a thing for Kelly and the council to decide. This is far reaching decision and the people of the county deserve the right to vote for it," said Johnson.
Johnson has been involved in Prince George's activist group since 1969 when he moved up from Montgomery County. "An urban sprawl brat" as he calls himself, Johnson worked for the county's charter in 1970, then became the "father of Question B," a referendum that allowed citizens a say on their right to vote on bond issues. That campaign in 1972, then a battle over building the Capital Center on public land in 1974, got Johnson involved with others in the county interested in keeping government controls in the hands of its citizens.
"We want citizens to have greater control of their future, of tax reform, zoning and land use," said Zwally. Zwally's Action Coalition, which includes representatives from 20 organizations and other individuals, has become a sponsor and financial supporter of the petition drive because, he said, "The people should have the right to consider this issue. We feel the county is avoiding the issue of tax reform by this (new tax). Kelly is just taxing the little things that are very much a nuisance to us."
Maloney, who is the "front-man" for the group, has been on the fringes of the political arena "since I was two." Maloney's father, Walter H. Maloney, was once county attorney.Maloney was also the county campaign manager for Paul Sarbanes in his successful Senate campaign in 1976.
He sees the petition drive "as an opportunity for citizens to make a choice. No one has said what the authority for the omnibus tax is. Kelly won't say for sure. He has already changed and lowered the taxing percentage on telephone service from 15 to 10 per cent since we started this drive. What's to say he won't change the percentages again?"
Maloney, as do the other petition campaign leaders, disclaims any political vendetta behind the drive. "I like Winnie," he said.
But Kelly and other county officials see the petition drive as a political threat, "an attempt to embarrass us," a "purely political maneuver." They say the leaders of the drive may be seeking office in 1978 and would like to see incumbent county officials forced to run on the same ballot as a tax referendum.
They say they are angry that their council's attempt to use the telephone tax has been thwarted.
"It's as if Tim Maloney were actually sitting on the council and setting the tax rate himself," said Kelly aide John Lally.
The sequence of events that led to the current stalemate began earlier this year. In January, Kelly went to the General Assembly and proposed a number of alternatives to the real property tax. The legislature passed the omnibus tax bill giving Prince George's the opportunity to tax telephone services, rent, parking and a number of other items.
Kelly said he would only impose one tax under this authority, the telephone tax. In May Kelly set the rate at 15 per cent on all telephone service, and added an equivalent $7 million into his revenue figures for the 1978 budget.
The council, meanwhile, cut $5 million out of the county services, to arrive at a $414 million budget and a 10 cent tax rate decrease for the next fiscal year.
But the CANT group, expressing concern over Kelly's potential taxing powers, decided to bring the taxing authority to referendum. Thus, the petition drive began.
In a meeting with county Democratic leaders last week, Kelly suggested that they "investigate ways the General Assembly could repeal the omnibus taxing authority." Kelly is aware of the political problems with running in 1978 on a ballot that includes a tax proposal. If the next General Assembly could repealed the tax law, it would take the tax issue off the ballot in 1978.
Johnson said he thought Kelly's proposal "shows hos immature a politician he is. He's going off the deep end.He's attacking this in the wrong way. He should be presenting a tax proposal showing all of us just how he would use the authority, then say, if you like it, vote for it. If you don't, okay.
"The people in this county know what's going on here. They are remarkably interested and informed."
While the CANT leaders are split on how they might vote for the referendum, with a majority saying they would vote for the county taxing authority, Johnson summed up the feelings of them all.
"The healthiest thing for this county and for its residents is to spend the next year debating this taxing issue. It's democracy at its best."