Montgomery County Council members, in a compromise with leaders of the county's taxpayers' revolt, have agreed to place a tax-limitation referendum on the county ballot in November that would hold annual property tax increases to the rate of inflation.
Four council members, the number needed to place a question before voters, are set to announce tomorrow their agreement with Fairness in Taxation, the taxpayers group formed in reaction to this year's dramatic increases in assessments.
Members of the group, whose outcry over taxes prompted council members to cut the tax rate by 16.5 cents, have been collecting signatures for an initiative to amend the County Charter by limiting property tax increases to 75 percent of the annual rate of inflation.
County Council member Neal Potter said he and other council members have agreed to support a measure that would hold the tax increase to the full rate of inflation. In 1989, the rate of inflation was 4.6 percent. With the recent cut in the tax rate, Montgomery homeowners now pay $2.81 per $100 of assessed valuation.
"We have been too neglectful of the burden falling on our homeowner," said Potter, noting that he thinks government needs to find ways to keep taxes from rising faster than inflation.
According to Potter, members of the taxpayers group will drop their petition drive in favor of the compromise reached with the council. Other council members set to attend tomorrow's news conference are William E. Hanna Jr., Bruce T. Adams and Isiah Leggett.
Robert Denny, chairman of the taxpayers group, said he could not discuss the agreement. But he said his group already had collected 12,000 signatures, 2,000 more than needed to place a referendum on the ballot. There are two ways charter amendments can be put before voters: by a majority vote of the council or with 10,000 signatures of registered voters. A simple majority is needed to pass an amendment.
Although a compromise may have been reached with the taxpayers group, it may not end the controversy over the politically volatile issue of taxes in a year when members of the all-Democratic council are seeking reelection. Potter is the only incumbent not running.
At least one other tax-limitation measure will be presented to voters. The Board of Elections has certified a referendum pushed by lawyer Robin Ficker that would bar the County Council from raising the tax rate above its fiscal 1988 level. Ficker also has submitted petitions for a measure that, if approved, would bar the county from spending local money on projects that are state responsiblities, such as building roads and schools.
County officials acknowledge that voters will confront a confusing set of choices if all of the tax measures end up on the ballot. Some of the tax measures are contradictory, and officials concede that they are not sure what will happen if all of the measures are approved by voters.
Council member Michael L. Subin said he doesn't think it makes for good government to clutter the County Charter with numerical limits and specific provisions.
"Government should be careful of how it expends its revenues, but there shouldn't be any artificial constraints," he said.
A group, led by the county League of Women Voters, has been formed to oppose any measures to write tax limits into the charter.
Rosalie Silverberg, the league official who is heading the Coalition to Save Our Services, said, "The charter is our constitution. It should be simple. Just the basic facts. We don't want little details like this in there that could tie the hands of government."
Silverberg noted that the league led the successful fight against a similar effort in 1978 to amend the charter, and plans an equally vigorous campaign this year. Members of the coalition include the county NAACP, the Gray Panthers, the county Chamber of Commerce and the unions representing county firefighters, police, teachers, and blue- and white-collar workers.
Potter noted that he too had opposed the 1978 amendment effort, but said the burden has become so great on homeowners that more drastic measures are needed. And he argued that the compromise with the taxpayers group is a good one, providing relief while giving the government some flexibility.
For example, he said the measure would allow the limits to be overridden in any given year by seven votes of what will become a new nine-member council later this year.