A group of Prince George's County residents is attempting to place on the November ballot a charter amendment that would permanently freeze the suburban Maryland county's property tax levy at the 1979 level.
The Prince George's movement represents the first grassroots attempt in the Washington area to take advantage of an apparent mood of rebellion among property taxpayers, most dramatically reflected by the success of Proposition 13 in California last week.
It was organized over the last week by William Goodman and David Bird, two maverick Democrats from the Lanham region who are running for General Assembly seats in the 23rd district.
Goodmand and Bird met with several independent Democrats last weekend and formed a group with the acronym TRIM (Tax Reform Intitiative by Marylanders) to push the charter amendment. TRIM will have until the fourth Monday in July to gain the 10,000 petition signatures required to place the referendum on the November ballot.
"The damn thing is blowing up on us already," Goodman said yesterday. "The response has been overwhelming. Everyone wants to be a part of this." He said petitions began circulating yesterday at political gatherings and at shopping centers.
Goodman and other TRIM supporters said their effort may serve as a rallying point for various independent Democrats in the county who are challenging the dominant party organization slate in the September primary. "We represent all different ideologies," said Goodman, "but this could very well bring us together."
County Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr., the leader of the Democratic organization, said yesterday that he had not seen the referendum petition, but might support it.
"Anything that has to do with reform of the property tax system, we're for and have been for eight years," Kelly said. "We've already broken the trend of escalating property taxes in Prince George's. This year, we cut the tax bill for the average homeowner by $104."
His top aide, John A. Lally, said the TRIM supporters were unwise to think they could make property taxes an issue in the 1978 campaign.
"We're not stupid," said Lally. "We've spent a lot of money on polls over the last four years to find out what the people are concerned about. We know the people want property tax reductions and that's what we've given them.We delivered before anyone knew what Proposition 13 was."
Prince George's is one of the eight counties in Maryland whose citizens can take into their own hands the job of changing the charter by which the county government operates. Although the state has sole control of the property tax assessment system in every county, Henry Epps, a charter expert at the Maryland Technical Advisory Service, said the effort to freeze the property tax levy appeared legal.
"From a technical point of view, the people have the right to petition a charter amendment of that sort," said Epps. "It might eventually be found unconstitutional by the courts, but it can be attempted. I would hope the voters would have better sense than to do something like that, but after Proposition 13 you can't tell what the hell will happen."
Goodman, a liberal who was dumped from the Democratic organization slate and lost his state senate seat in 1974, said he considered the California measure, which cut the property tax assessment rate to 1 percent, irresponsible. "That will lead to a reduction in services," he said. "My aim is different. I want to end the reliance on the property tax and develop a more progressive income tax. That's something the organization Democrats promise in their platforms but don't achieve."
The referendum petition Goodman drafted has two main points, the most important being that the county would be permanently prohibited from raising any more revenue through property taxes then it raised that way in fiscal year 1979 budget. That amount is estimated at $140 million, or 40 percent of the total county revenue.
Secondly, the petition states that if the country happens to collect more than the maximum amount from property tax assessments which could happen if inflation pushed property values up - this excess could not be spent, but instead would go into a contingency fund and be applied to the next year's budget.
Word of the petition drive spread quickly through the county Sunday and yesterday. Several homeowners' groups and politicians called Goodman and Bird and asked to join in the TRIM effort, Goodman said. "I originally planned to lead the petition drive myself, but it's already grown too large."
Goodman said he has turned for assistance to the people who last year organized a successful petition drive to force a referendum vote on the unpopular county omnibus tax. That referendum was thwarted only when the Prince George's General Assembly delegation killed the tax before the referendum question could come to a vote.
The omnibus tax people developed a strong network of workers that we can use," said Goodman. "It also created a movement among taxpayers that should make it very easy for us to get the 10,000 signatures."