Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening is likely to talk about a myriad of issues in a speech these days before he gets around to plugging Question A, the referendum proposal on the Nov. 6 ballot that would loosen TRIM, the county's ceiling on property tax revenues.
Glendening and other elected county officials are as eager this year to have TRIM (Tax Reform Initiative by Marylanders) amended as they were in 1982 during the last modification effort. But this time, county officials are stepping back from the uphill campaign in order, they say, to give their cause the same grass-roots image that helped pass the tax control initiative in 1978.
"It's not because we're hiding from the issue," Glendening spokesman Tim Ayers said. Instead, Question A supporters say they learned in 1982 that voters are not likely to be swayed by a government campaign to win more spending money for itself.
County Councilman Frank Casula, a former TRIM advocate who this year cosponsored Question A, recently told county Democrats, "We are being lambasted all over the county that all this is so the politicians can increase their taxes so they can go on another binge like they did prior to 1978."
Both sides admit that, three weeks before the general election, Prince George's voters familiar with the issue are not convinced a change is needed.
"If the election were held today, we would lose," Glendening said last week in an interview. "No doubt about it."
"There's a lot of distrust out there," Glendening acknowledged after a recent luncheon address to the Laurel Chamber of Commerce, in which TRIM modification was far down in his speech. Members of Fairness for All County Taxpayers, or FACT, a pro-amendment group, are often likely to be "business people or community people with conservative credentials," he said.
But behind the scenes, some government officials have been doing their own lobbying on behalf of Question A. Prince George's police chief Michael J. Flaherty, for example, sent letters this month to 95 members of his department's Citizens Advisory Council urging them to support the TRIM change. TRIM, Flaherty said in the letter, "has drastically reduced the ability of the police department to provide anything other than basic service to our residents."
State Del. David Bird (D-Prince George's) objected last Monday to Flaherty's use of police department stationery for the mailing, saying that the use of county materials and personnel to push for Question A "raises serious legal and ethical concerns." Flaherty repaid the $36.83 he said it cost for the mailing.
The proposed charter amendment, if approved, would lift the $143.9 million ceiling that has capped county property tax revenues since the original TRIM amendment was passed. Under the change, the property tax would be frozen at $2.40 per $100 assessed value, three cents lower than the current property tax rate, but the collections could rise as assessments increase and new construction occurs.
"We're like a rubber band, stretching around a bigger and bigger bundle of needs," said Royal Hart, a former state senator who is the county's state legislative liaison. "And like a rubber band, we will eventually break."
Glendening said last week that if the TRIM ballot question passes, he would commit to public safety and education programs all of the $6 million to $8 million that supporters estimate it will raise during the first year.
"They're the areas in the most need, and also two very expensive areas," he said. "They're also the areas people look at most."
The national tax revolt that spawned TRIM resulted in tax limitation measures in other states, but none as strict as in Prince George's County. George Peterson, director of the Washington-based Urban Institute's Public Finance Center, said that such measures have often benefited businesses more than individual homeowners.
"One of the basic arguments behind limitations was that government could absorb the expenditure cuts through greater efficiency and productivity," he said.
But Peterson, who has studied tax limitation measures Proposition 13 in California and Proposition 2 1/2 in Massachusetts, said streamlining has not always occurred despite reductions in overall growth and spending. In those states, Peterson said, the cost of services has shifted from the localities to the state government, which in each case has begun to pay for increased portions of education and health and welfare budgets.
"By and large, the expenditure reductions have gotten passed along in real service reductions," Peterson said. "It comes down to what level of service people want to pay for."
Unlike Massachusetts and California, which imposed the local property tax ceilings statewide, Prince George's County has been unable to convince the state to absorb any of the burden it has been unable to shoulder for itself.
"Prince George's has very little claim on the state for relief, because they chose not to tax themselves," Peterson said.
Since the TRIM issue was played out in the county in 1976 and 1982, FACT and TRIM supporters say that they must work hard to conquer voter disinterest. Thirty to 40 people generally attend the meetings on the amendment that have been held throughout the county nearly every night since Labor Day.
Volunteers from both sides who have knocked on doors and pollsters who have questioned voters over the phone report that the amendment supporters are the underdogs in this battle.
"I assume it's an uphill battle," said FACT cochairman Bonnie F. Johns, who is also outgoing chairwoman of the county school board. "The only thing I know is that for me it's a matter of conscience."
FACT's full-time paid campaign director, Michael Knapp, said FACT has a $40,000 budget, office space in a College Park shopping center and more than 100 trained volunteers who give as many as 35 speeches a night.
The pro-TRIM group, organizer John Gleason said, has a budget of around $2,000, no central location and no sophisticated preprinted brochure or marketing strategy. Its volunteers, however, also are out speaking most nights, often in debates with FACT representatives before community groups and PTAs.
Yet the TRIM supporters have something on their side: a successful track record.
In one of the few quantitative indications of voters' sentiments, 42 percent of the 274 likely voters questioned over the phone last month in a poll commissioned by TRIM and conducted by TRIM volunteers said they were planning to vote against the referendum proposal. Another 26 percent said they would favor it, and 32 percent said they were undecided.
The margin of error for such a small sample, pollsters say, is 6 percent.
Because the 18 volunteers who did the phoning from their homes were not supervised, poll author Louis Granados said, the poll's results cannot be considered a statement of residents' beliefs.
"The bias in the questions was intentional," he said. "Most of the ones which were leading were done purposely to see which arguments work well and which ones don't."
FACT took a similar poll late in the summer but has not released its results. Knapp, a county employe who has taken a 10-week unpaid leave of absence to manage the FACT campaign, said that the large number of undecided voters will resolve Question A's fate.
Gleason, former county attorney Walter Maloney and TRIM coauthors William Goodman and Bird have led the fight to keep TRIM in its current form by trying to convince voters that the property tax ceiling is the only control property owners have over the amount of tax they pay.
Gleason plays on the theme of distrust of government, telling audiences that Prince George's is a relatively wealthy county that is not in the dire straits that FACT would have them believe.
Much of the battle centers on numbers used by FACT and TRIM to justify each others' claims of exactly how needy or wealthy Prince George's County has become since TRIM was imposed.
The first year of Question A would add $30 to the average taxpayer's annual tax bill, FACT says. TRIM, however, says in its literature that that figure would amount to something more like $40 a year.
FACT also says that Prince George's is well below the state average in staffing for its school system and would have to hire more than 1,000 employes to reach that average.
TRIM supporters, however, say their figures show that the school system is already top-heavy in noninstructional personnel and that the county has increased the school department budget by 10 percent during a time when enrollment decreased by 6 percent.
And when pro-Question A forces indicate that increased class sizes and low starting teachers' salaries endanger the school system, TRIM supporters say that Prince George's County schools rank not far behind Fairfax and Montgomery counties in per-pupil expenditures.
Montgomery County spends $4,114 per pupil and Fairfax County $3,236 per pupil, TRIM spokesman John Gleason said, while Prince George's spends about $3,000 per pupil.
Even though county officials say their figures show that fire and police response times have slowed since the advent of TRIM, tax limitation proponents say the county is simply using a different yardstick to measure the degree of response time.
And although both sides concede that businesses have benefited most from TRIM, they analyze that result differently. FACT supporters say that since C&P Telephone paid $270,000 less in property taxes last year than the year before, those who can most afford to pay taxes are getting the tax breaks. TRIM forces, meanwhile, point the finger at the county, saying that it loses needed revenue by creating special tax increment financing districts designed to attract business to the county.
"Our side would describe (the TRIM modification) as a way to give politicians more money when they're not doing a very good job with the money they have now," said Granados.
Robert Ostrom, a lawyer who is active on the FACT speakers' circuit, sees the battle differently.
"The need to amend TRIM and the need to better manage what you have are two separate issues," he told an audience in Hyattsville at one debate. "All intelligent voters are not going to react to the first cosmetic blush in a set of numbers."