For three years, Karl Schlotterbeck and the leaders of the Montgomery County Taxpayers' League dogged the budget sessions of the Montgomery County Council, patiently waiting their turn to offer pages of tax-cutting suggestions to trim the county's half-billion dollar budget.
Time and again, they would recommend more individual fees for users of such government facilities as libraries, and would propose reductions in the hiring of police, teachers, health and social workers. Invariably they would run out of time before they could complete their list.
The would take pictures of themselves testifying for newspapers that would never print them, and leave the session feeling ignored.
Then came the passage of Proposition 13 in California last spring, and suddenly the "outs" were "ins."
In just a few weeks, the cause of the conservative group of senior adults and retirees won the sympathy of a wide spectrum of the county's population. Schlotterbeck and his group managed to harness the unarticulated frustration of thousands of taxpayers, and in 42 days they collected 29,000 signatures - three times the number needed - to place a tax-limitation measure on Tuesday's ballot.
Schlotterbeck, the league's 72-year-old chairman, is as much a symbol of the tax-cutting controversy as TRIM, or Ballot Question &, is the focus of this year's county election campaigns.A conservative Republican with an undergraduate degree in economics, he spent the last half of his career fighting often quixotic battles against government spending. As a lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, he argued against the expansion of New Deal-style programs like Social Security, health insurance, Medicare and welfare.
Now, though reluctant to be in the forefront of the new political wave, he is determined about his cause. "The elected officials are out of touch with the people. Change is taking place in their midst, and they don't know it. Things aren't what they were," he said.
In part it was the clamor for more services by residents of one of the nation's wealthiest suburbs - that helped precipitate the county's dilemma. Government costs in Montgomery have grown twice as fast as the increase in average personal income in the past six years. At the same time, under the administration of Republican James Gleason and the all-Democratic council, the number of government jobs has grown three times as fast as the county's population.
The league's solution to this growth, the ballot amendment now called TRIM, would roll back the county's property tax rate 35 cents to $2.25, and would restrict the council's ability to raise taxes in the future.
For Schlotterbeck, the passage of the question would help alleviate what he feels is a longstanding imbalance in the distribution of the tax burden.
"The mature family of one or two persons, from 55 years old and up, as a group pays more in taxes than they consumed in services . . . (while) the younger family with several children as a group consumes more than they produce. This results in more services," he said recently.
"If there is a human need, isn't it one that should be handled by private enterprisers with their intiative and imagination, who unlike government are subject to the discipline of a profit and loss economy?"
It is easy to make sons idological parallels between Schlotterbeck and Howard Jarvis, the flambouyant leader of California's Proposition 13. But Schlotterbeck, a quiet-spoken man, abhors, the comparison. "Dont' ever call me that . . . It's not true," he said. This movement was not my idea. A couple of committees analyzed what was happening and this grew out of it."
In fact, it all began four years ago in the basement of a Bethesda office building when 30 friends gathered to exchange horror stories about their taxes.
One of the originators of this group was Schlotterbeck, then chairman of a local chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons, who had begun scrutinizing the country's budget because of his rising taxes.
Schlotterbeck and his wife have lived in the country since 1945, having spent the last 22 years in their two-bedroom bungalow in Bethesda.
But Schlotterbeck will say little about his personal life, preferring that his public identity be defined only in terms of his cause. He does remember that last year he paid $1,500 in property taxes.
Schlotterbeck has been effective at keeping alive the anger of his constituents. He is a man who can take individual budget items as personal insults, and an accumulation of these items is a matter for outrage. He conveys this outrage through the newsletter of his taxpayers league and through his pronouncements as the leading spokesman for the league's alter-ego, the Committee for Tax Relief in Montgomery.
A recent flier put out by this latter group includes a catalogue of six items billed as examples of government waste. At the end of each items is a similar refrain: "Who pays for this? You, Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer."
Schlotterbeck and other league officials formed the Committee for Tax Relief in Montgomery specifically to put the tax-cutting question on the county ballot, and they bought with them their almost patented sense of righteous indination.
But now that they are at the forefront of a bitter political fight, they have become hypersensitive about their image.
These days the group shies away from questions about its finances - it has received $8,230 in contributions - or its internal working. Schlotterbeck parries such queries with answers like, "Why don't you ask (the teacher's union) that?"
Schlotterbeck, however, argues that making those cut-back decisions is the council's job, not the job of the Taxpayer League or TRIM.
The Taxpayers League shies away from questions about its finances or internal workings as Schlotterbeck and other leaders parrying such queries with answers like, "Why don't you ask (the teacher's union which is opposing them) that?" But according to the Oct. 24 financial statement through Oct. 24 filed by the Committee for Tax Relief in Montgomery, the trim movement has raised.
By contrast, the Fair Share Coalition, a group of labor, teachers, senior citizens, civil rights groups and students, has raised $2,616, according to its financial statement. Members of coalition, as well as the school board, board, the library board, the County the coalition, as well as the school Council of PTA's the Tenants Association, council members and County Executive James P. Gleason have denounced TRIM as "too rigid". "Tax revolt is not tax reform," the coalition has repeatedly said.
Although feelings on both sides of the TRIM debate are now raw, in the past even political opponents of the taxpayers' league praised its leaders - for their diligence in poring over the county's 400-page budget.
These leaders have also been criticized, however, for selectively using the data they cull from the budget to support their pet objections to certain social services.
Among the budget reductions the group has called for over the past three years, are the abolition of 50 special education teachers' posts, a hiring freeze in the police force and the health and social welfare staffs, and the elimination of the Commission of Women.
League officials also readily acknowledge that these and all their other proposed cuts would not come close to making up the estimated $26 million or more that would be eliminated from the county budget if the TRIM amendment is approved on Tuesday.
"If the people elected have the determination, the faith, the good will to make these reductions, then it can be done without all these catastophic predictions about cuts in essential services," he said. "We've got to have a county council that is responsive to the people."