Anne Arundel County officials filed suit yesterday in an attempt to keep a tax limitation initiative off the county's ballot in November.
The lawsuit, filed in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court by the county and four taxpayers, contends that the proposal to roll back fiscal 1992 property taxes to the 1989 level circumvents the lawmaking powers guaranteed to county councils under the "home rule" provision of the Maryland Constitution.
"The local county councils must be the primary legislating organization," said David A. Plymyer, deputy county attorney. "It is not the prerogative of the electorate to enact the property tax rate."
County election officials declared Monday that the Anne Arundel Taxpayers for Responsive Government had obtained more than the necessary 10,000 valid signatures to put their initiative on the ballot.
According to the Maryland Association of Counties, there is no legal precedent for the challenge filed yesterday.
"Nothing quite like this has ever come up in the courts before," said Chip MacLeod, assistant director of the association.
County officials agreed that the case, which will likely go to the Maryland Court of Appeals, is unprecedented. "But we believe the Maryland Constitution backs us up," County Attorney Steven Beard said.
Meanwhile, the president of the taxpayers' group condemned the county's action. "It is an obvious, desperate, 11th-hour attempt by those who fear losing their power over the people, those who cannot risk the people's voice at the ballot box, to block the legitimate expression of the voters," Robert C. Schaeffer said.
Rising property taxes have triggered protest movements in Montgomery and Baltimore counties as well as Anne Arundel. In Anne Arundel, County Executive James Lighthizer argues that the strict limits being sought by upset taxpayers would jeopardize vital county services.
The suit was filed against Schaeffer and the Board of Supervisors of Elections of Anne Arundel County.
Along with the proposal to roll back and then limit property tax revenue, the taxpayers' group is awaiting the election board's ruling on signatures gathered for a second initiative. The second proposal, which is also a target of the county's lawsuit, would allow voters to adopt or reject laws. That action then could be overturned only by a unanimous vote of the County Council.
"That initiative is clearly unconstitutional," Deputy County Attorney Plymyer said, citing a two-year-old decision in a Talbot County case decided by the Court of Appeals.
Anne Arundel County filed suit on its own behalf and in the name of four taxpayers: Ray Smallwood, president of the Maryland City Civic Association and the Federation of West County Civic Associations; Thomas Neuberger of Millersville, a member of the county's Spending Affordability Committee and the Recreation Council; Carolyn McCoy of Severna Park, an activist in education and drug-abuse issues, and Mary Rosso of Glen Burnie, a member of Save Our Streams.
Plymyer said that, when environmental and community activists upset by the proposed initiatives offered their help, the county was happy to work with them.
"It's better for us from a legal perspective and, obviously, also, for symbolic reasons as well," he said.