The Prince George's County Council approved a resolution on Tuesday which sets the stage for a final tax rate decision to be made tonight at 9 p.m.
Forced by state law to set the property tax rate by midnight tonight, the council decided to wait until the last possible moment to review the outcome of a petition drive to suspend the county's authority to tax telephones. The petitions must be submitted to the Secretary of State by midnight tonight.
The resolution sets the property tax rate at two levels, one conditioned upon the other. It stipulates that a rate of $3.41 cents per $100 of assessed value will be levied unless notification is received from the secretary of state by July 19 that the petition drive was not successful.
If the drive does not succeed, a lower tax rate, $3.2 per $100, will be levied. The resolution also allows a rebate to homeowners should the higher rate ($3.41) and the telephone tax both be levied this year.
Council members admitted that the resolution was merely a "bargaining tool" for negotiations between the council, the county executive and the citizens group spearheading the drive, Prince Goerge's Citizens Against Nuisance Taxes (CANT).
"We don't know what the future will hold (until tonight)," said council chairman William B. Amonett. "But we are going to go down to the wire with this thing."
Council member Parris N. Glendening, who as a member of te Fiscal and planning Committee has been working for a compromise between the council and the CANT group, said on Tuesday "the council may amend and replace the resolution by Thursday night (tonight). It all depends on what they do, if they file their petitions tomorrow (Wednesday)."
The Glendening compromise would insure the CANT group that the tax question would be on the 1978 ballot if the group allows the country to use the telephone taxing authority until the 1978 election.
"It would give us a chance to prove ourselves," said John Lally, press aide to county executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr.
Before the council session, county attorney James Chapin discussed the legality of the resolution in a special executive session. He told the council members that "theoretically it (the resolution) was legal because the council would not be changing the rate, but would be setting it based on two contingencies." Chapin said there was no legal precedent for such a dual tax ratc resolution.
The council has been placed "between this rock and a hard place," as one member described the situation, since June 1 when the CANT group filed the first of 12,144 signaturs they need by June 30 to put the bus taxing authority to a referendum. The taxing authority would allow the county to tax all county telephone service and figured to produce $6.8 million. The county had counted on the money as revenues in its 1978 budget.
Because the taxing authority is suspended by the petition drive, the county is forced to come up with an alternative funding source for the $6.8 million.A majority of council members said they had no alternative but to increase the property tax rate.
Others, however, tried to come up with alternative plans to a property tax raise. Council member Samuel W. Bogley introduced a resolution that would "urge" the county executive to reduce the 1978 budget by the missing $6.8 million, by making major cuts in the Board of Education budget.
Several members questioned the value of this idea. "It would suggest that we have knowledge where in the county budget to slash the $6.8 million," said Francis W. White. "If we have that knowledge, we should have done it before during budget sessions. I don't think we should tell the public there's hope of doing this."
Council member Francis B. Francois introduced a bill that provides for a commercial lease tax. Amonentt said there was "no way" he could ever vote for such a tax.
There was a general feeling throughout the council that "when it comes right down to it" they will have to set a higher tax rate.
"I have not found these people too flexible," said Gerard T. McDonough of the CANT leaders. "We probably could have adopted the $3.41 rate today. It's in the nature of the beast to hold another session so the hard question could be put off for a couple of days."
The specific figures of the telephone tax rate were finally revealed when Kelly, through the council chairman, introduced an emergency bill during the council session. The legislation calls for a 10 per cent excist tax on local residential telephone service and for a 4-cent-per-message-unit charge on all commercial and industrial establishments in the county.
The tax bill would only be appropriate should the couty receive the authority to levy the tax.