After a round of golf at Kenwood Country Club yesterday.Joseph Gambatese wandered into the clubhouse, then walked from table to table carrying a handful of petitions calling for a Proposition 13-like referendum to lower property taxes in Montgomery County.
Within minutes, he had collected some signatures and another man was asking if he could circulated more petitions. "It was easy," Gambatese recalled casually.
With just such an absence of fanfare - but with tremendous confidence - the Montgomery County Taxpayers League is doggedly attempting to collect 10,000 signatures by Aug. 21 for a November voter referendum seeking to lower county property tax rates and make approval of new tax increases difficult.
"We don't have to call the people. They call us and say, where do we sign?" said Karl Schlotterback, the league's chairman. "It's just a matter of getting the petitions to them."
The league's proposal would roll the property tax back to $2.25 per $100 assessed value - down from the current $2.60 per $100 level - and permit tax rates to be raised or new taxes imposed only by a vote of six of the seven Montgomery County Council members.
Such a step is necessary. Schlotterbeck contended, because "if the money is there, the politicians will spend it.?"
Disturbed by the momentum it fears the taxpayers' league drive will generate, the County Council has been attempting to defuse the taxpayers' revolt with spending limitation proposals of its own.
The charter amendments proposed for voter referendums in November and which will be debated in public hearings tomorrow night would tie increases in the county operating budget to the annual rise in the cost of living in the Washington area.
These proposals are "sounder" than the league's and would not make the budget a "hostage of state and local political considerations," said Council member William G. Colman.
To give its drive to counter the taxpayers' league even more momentum, the council last week released staff estimates showing that the taxpayer's league proposition could slice county revenues from $26 million to as much as $115 million annually. The county's current operating budget is $564 million.
Schlotterbeck said $30 to $35 million is a more realistic estimate for the referendum's potential effect.
"I hope everyone doesn't get hysterical about Proposition 13," said council member Esther Gelman during council discussions.
"California is a state of mind. I don't think our government lives on water and beansprouts. We have had responsible government and good management for a long time. If there is a petition movement (by the taxpayers' league), it will fail. I would wager everything I own on that."
But despite the council majority's frequent public disparagement of what they call the "Proposition 13 fever," Schlotterbeck and his 150 volunteers are busily collecting signatures - uncounted to date - at shopping centers, churches, clubs and front doors.
On the 10th floor of a Bethesda office building, in two tiny offices sparsely furnished with cardtables, TV trays and folding chairs, women in pastel pantsuits and men in shirt-sleeves count petition signature and urge on volunteers. A hand-drawn day-glo poster marks each taxpayers' league display in shopping centers, and Schlotterbeck, a glib man, dashes off slogans for these signs.
"I really like 'Keep in TRIM With Us," he said with a chuckle. The name of the petition drive is TRIM (Committee for Tax Relief in Montgomery County).
Schlotterbeck contends that the voters don't need lengthy speeches and position papers to convince them to sign.