Just a day after Prince George's County's 850 police officers narrowly accepted their first contract in at least a decade that offers them no cost-of-living increase for two years, police union president Mahlron Curran proclaimed his members are "too proud" to tolerate another contract like it.
Curran, along with firefighters' union president Ronald Milor, announced last week their unions would launch another attempt to repeal the county's TRIM property tax cap, the strict limit on property revenue that county voters passed overwhelmingly in 1978.
"Public safety is not getting its fair share of the taxes," Curran said. He said his group would try to get a modification proposal on the 1984 ballot. "This proposal will be for public safety, and we think the public will support that."
Curran's announcement renews the debate over whether county voters are ready to trade the tangible benefits of TRIM, which they can see in stable or even lower tax bills, for the less visible benefits in the quality of life that opponents say will be lost if nothing is done. Public safety leaders like Curran say that with the right kind of promotion, county voters can be persuaded, although others are not so sure.
TRIM (Tax Reform Initiative by Marylanders) allows the county to collect only as much revenue from property tax as it did in 1979, about $143.9 million. The inflexibility of the cap makes it one of the most restrictive tax limiting measures in the nation, and critics have long lamented that the measure makes no provision either to allow the county to keep up with inflation or to benefit from new development.
Although TRIM has forced a dramatic decline in the county's property tax rate, which had been one of the highest in the area, TRIM has been blamed for causing the county's bond rating to be lowered and forcing the county to pay more to sell its bonds. It also is blamed for the layoffs of 507 teachers last spring.
Newly elected County Executive Parris Glendening warned this year that more layoffs, this time spread throughout the government, could have occurred without a last minute gambling bill that was pushed by the county's state legislators.
In the General Assembly, legislators from other parts of the state vigorously fought most bills to help Prince George's raise more money from nonproperty tax sources, saying the county created its own difficulties by holding on to TRIM.
Despite these cuts and gloomy prophecies, efforts to modify TRIM have repeatedly failed. In 1980, members of the county's teachers' union and the council of PTAs could not even get the 10,000 signatures required to get the measure on the ballot that year. And last fall, despite the endorsement of groups ranging from county employe unions to the Democratic Central Committee to the county Chamber of Commerce, a modest proposal to add new development and an inflation factor to TRIM failed by a margin of about 3 to 2.
This time around will be different, Curran said. "Public safety is something that's important to everybody," he said. "The difference is that Question K last year's proposal was introduced by the PTAs. Question K was for kids as I understand it. And not everybody has kids in the school. This will be for public safety."
Curran said the two previous drives, which the Fraternal Order of Police nominally endorsed, failed because they were tied too strongly to education, which is not a top priority in a county with an aging population.
Teachers' union president John Sisson bristled at the suggestion that TRIM be modified only to benefit public safety but was reluctant to criticize any effort to repeal it.
"We were working to amend TRIM when it wasn't popular, so of course we will be interested in any efforts being made," he said.
Sisson added that the Prince George's Educators' Association, in conjunction with its national affiliate, will be investing in more sophisticated voter research to determine the kind of modification voters would be willing to support.
Glendening, who has long supported modification of TRIM, said: "I think the consensus is that TRIM should be modified, and I think the consensus is that new growth should be added to the assessable base. But my concern is that if you get too many people moving in too many directions at once, you may end up with too many different approaches.
"My approach is to literally do nothing and let the ideas float to the surface, take a look at all of them and see if you can come to consensus."
Other leaders say the county will simply have to learn to live in reduced circumstances. "Once you give people the authority to say they're not going to be taxed," council member William Amonett said, "they're not going back.