Ann Charnley says she feels out of character playing the tax rebel, especially during the troubling economic times settling in the Washington area.
But the 20-year Chevy Chase resident said she will vote tomorrow for an initiative to limit property taxes in Montgomery County as a protest against politicians "who just didn't get it."
"I consider myself a liberal Democrat. I've never done anything like this before. But it took only one look at my tax bill to see that we had a problem," Charnley said.
Montgomery County is not the only home of discontented taxpayers like Charnley. Voters in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties will decide on similar initiatives in their counties.
They say the action is needed to ensure that wasteful spending is cut and governments are forced to find more equitable means of taxation. "You don't want to leave it to the discretion of elected officials any more," said Charnley, a publicist and freelance writer.
Tax rebels such as Charnley confound tax-limit opponents who are fighting to retain the budget flexibility they say is needed to deal with financial uncertainties and a growing population. Without that freedom, they say, tax limits inevitably would lead to painful cuts in schools, police and fire services and other government programs.
Anne Arundel County's ballot proposal, for example, ultimately is "a question of whether we get strangled rapidly or slowly," said outgoing County Executive James Lighthizer (D).
He said the county's $616 million operating budget this year would have been $100 million tighter if a proposed 4.5 percent limit on annual property tax increases had been in place for the past 10 years. "You can argue that every budget has some fat, but I would suggest there isn't any $100 million worth of fat in there," Lighthizer said.
More frustrating to some government officials is the fact that efforts already have been made to take the sting out of rising tax bills. Earlier this year, the Maryland General Assembly voted to limit the annual rise in taxable assessments at 10 percent, and many local governments cut the rates at which those assessments are taxed.
Furthermore, the late 1980s real estate boom that drove up assessments, and tax bills, finally has cooled.
"There's an ironic situation developing here in which many of the underlying reasons why people are unhappy have been taken care of, but still this momentum continues," said Philip Dearborn, executive director of the Governor's Commission on State Taxes and Tax Structure.
Anti-tax fever has not been limited to the three counties facing limitation proposals on their ballots. Some Prince George's County leaders decided against trying to amend that county's TRIM tax limit this year because of widespread unhappiness with rising assessments. In Howard County, County Executive Elizabeth Bobo (D) announced in September that she was establishing a spending affordability committee.
Northern Virginia has not been immune to anti-tax pressure, either.
"It's hold-the-line here," said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Audrey Moore (D). She said county department heads have been directed to propose budgets for next year that either call for no increase in spending or a 5 percent cut.
Several polls have suggested that the Maryland referendums will be approved. But even if that happens, the ballot questions could end up in court.
In Montgomery County, Question F, which would tie property tax revenue increases to the rate of inflation, is in competition with the more restrictive Question I and a third proposal to put a ceiling on tax rate increases. If all three initiatives pass, and polls indicate they probably will, it will be up to the courts to decide what is law, according to supporters and opponents.
"We're trying to warn voters that enacting both F and Question I could nullify both or the courts could create a camel that is difficult to work with," said Robert Denny, a Montgomery County tax revolt leader who gathered signatures for Question I but now favors F.
The Anne Arundel County initiative also could end up in court if it is approved because of a disagreement over how it should be applied.
Montgomery County's Question F would curb next year's $735 million property tax revenue by $36 million if the tax rate is unchanged; the county would lose about $706 million over six years, according to the latest revenue analysis by Peter Hutchinson, the county's director of budget planning.
Supporters of the limits said local governments' dependence on property taxes is the reason the measures are on the ballot.
"It's easy to see why homeowners have become the latest happy hunting ground for new revenue," Charnley said. The federal government is no longer aiding local governments, and Maryland state government has more pressing needs in Baltimore, she said. "So where does local government go to pay for all the nice things we have? The property tax."
Rosalie Silverberg, a Montgomery League of Women Voters official who is leading a coalition of county groups opposed to the ballot measures, said other sources of revenue should be identified before property taxes are limited.
"I don't think the way to go about this is to change the county's charter, which is our Constitution," Silverberg said. "We should work to elect people who will do what we want."
But Robert C. Schaeffer, leader of Anne Arundel County's anti-tax movement, said ousting elected officials can be done only once every four years and often is difficult, given the advantages of incumbency. "They have all the money and all the power," he said.
Before taxpayers gathered the 10,000 signatures needed to put the tax limitation measure on the ballot, Schaeffer said elected officials "basically ignored us." He added, "They are not ignoring us any more." Staff writer Lisa Leff contributed to this report.