Two Prince George's County Democrats have taken the hottest political issue in the country - citizen anger over high property taxes - and used it to wring budgetary concessions from the county government.
By organizing a petition drive aimed at freezing county property tax revenues at 1979 levels, the men have forced County Executive Winfield M. Kelly to declare that he will halt new spending and will freeze or cut back county hiring.
At the same time, the petition drive has overshadowed Kelly's own heavily publicized property tax cut, which was adopted last month by the County Council. In the wake of California's Proposition 13, the two Democrats have seized on an issue that, in an election year, few county politicians are likely to oppose.
The two men, William Goodman, an 11-year veteran of state politics, and David Bird, a newcomer to the political arena, are both running for state office this year and say they expect to benefit politically from a groundswell of support for the tax relief proposal.
If they can get 10,000 valid voter signatures on their petitions by Aug. 21, it will place a referendum on the Prince George's ballot, setting a ceiling on the amount of revenues the county can collect from the county property tax.
"We have been campaigning for many months now and have done a lot of door knocking," said Bird, a 31-year-old Cheverly lawyer and candidate for for the Maryland House from the 23rd District. "We have found that the most important issue with these people is property taxes. The vote in California also identified this very serious problem, although we strongly disagreed with that radical solution."
"We were concerned that the kind of action we would recommend through a referendum would be responsible," said Goodman. "We feel that the freeze would be the best way to approach it. I mean, anything that would freeze or reduce taxes in Prince George's today would be popular."
Bird added, "This is designed to force the issue."
Goodman, according to several of his former colleagues in the Maryland General Assembly and by his own admission has often "forced the issue." "You might say that in politics I was a controversial person for not accepting 'no' at any time," he said.
Goodman said he had developed a "maverick" label in both the Maryland Senate and House for drafting legislation on strip mining, wetlands and soil erosion. A 48-year-old marketing expert for the C&P Telephone Company, Goodman is running for the Maryland Senate seat in the 23rd District that he lost four years ago to another independent Democrat, Thomas O'Reilly. O'Reilly is running for reelection this year on the "Democrats '78" slate and has endorsed the petition drive.
"I've been critical of local government for 12 or 13 years," Goodman said. "When (the county) was in trouble financially there was always someone who would bail them out. The state would take over an agency for them or increase the county's revenues through aid to education. Local government has never been held accountable for its actions."
"The problem we see," said Bird, "is that the property tax is running people out of their homes. People whose careers have leveled off and who are now looking toward retirement have to face sharp increases in their property taxes with yearly assessment increases."
According to the county budget office, the county real property tax rate has increased by slightly more than 1 percent in the past five years to the present level of $3.31 per $100 of assessed valuation. Assessements on residential properties, however, have increased 27.4 percent in the same time.
Both Bird and Goodman look for a revised, graduated state income tax to produce revenues for the county lost through a property tax revenue freeze.
County budget officials estimate that the referendum would freeze revenues from county residential taxes at $140 million - the expected fiscal 1979 level. As more property is developed, the tax rate would decline because the revenue ceiling would force the overall tax burden to be shared among more taxpayers.
Many of the county elected officials, aware of the apparent citizen support already generated for the petition, have spoken in favor of the referendum drive.When news of the petition drive hit Kelly's office, hastily called strategy sessions led to quick decision last week to endorse the referendum drive as a "populist movement."
While instituting the hiring and new program freeze, Kelly said he "could live with the proposal for two years," should he be reelected, and said the program "was compatible with his homeowners' tax relief program."
Others say that while they support the concept of reduced taxes, they have reservations about the use of a tax collection ceiling to bring it about.
"We find there's no elasticity in the referendum proposal, there's no growth potential," said council member Parris N. Glendening. "We're in the middle of a construction boom, commercial as well as residential, and should the referendum succeed, we are not going to see the benefit from that.
"That tax revolt is valid, it shows a real and immense sense of dissatisfaction out there. But it is obvious that we will have to make gradual but continuous service cuts to meet the freeze and at the point when no more cuts can be made, we will have to switch to other taxes."
County Council members say they are studying proposed alternatives to the referendum. One alternative, offered by council member Darlene White, was rejected this week after council members contradicted themselves and said that offering alternatives now would be "an infringement on the people's original charter amendment."
Glendening said that the council "would be abandoning some of (its) leadership possibilities," but added, "if we do propose one of our own, we will get painted in the picture as 'anti' the proposal."
Other council members said they are concerned that limited county revenues will hinder the county's ability to attract federal money through revenue sharing for rehabilitation programs in the county's older, inner-Beltway neighborhoods.
"I think that's bull," said Goodman. "The major cost of government right now is not people services, it's responding to the development syndrome in the county. Almost no attention is paid to Tuxedo, Seat Pleasant, parts of Hyattsville. Instead, the elected officials say the future lies in Brandywine, in Mattawoman, in the new towns."
"Look, we're not trying to create a crisis in government," said Bird. "This amendment gives the government time to deal with the problem. There has to be no cuts until July 1979. If this is adopted in November, the County Council and state legislature will have six to eight months to deal with the problem."
Retired state senior Meyer Emanuel, a 15-year veteran of the political wars in the Maryland General Assembly, is not so sure will be able to respond.
"Billy's (Goodman) bill doesn't bother me too much," said Emanuel. "It will force the state to do something about the property tax problem. But the state may not be sympathetic to just Prince George's County. We've had bills to substitute income taxes for property taxes before - and they haven't passed.
"What concerns me is that the referendum puts a strait jacket on the government. The electorate is saying, 'While I'm electing you, I don't trust you to use your judgment to run the government.'"
While many elected officials and county bureaucrats say they believe the referendum will probably get on the ballot and pass in November, they do not agree on what its effect will be. A Kelly aide said his office can now only speculate on which programs may be cut next year to comply with the Kelly-imposed freeze.
Goodman said, "We have all kinds of room, all kinds of cutting to do" in the budget.
But a school board official was uncertain. "It's still too soon for us to say," said John Aubushon. "We will be beginning negotiations for another teachers' contract in November, and we don't know what will happen.
"It looks like rough times ahead, to me."