The green-and-white signs popping up along major roads in Montgomery County read like an eerie greeting from a "Twilight Zone" episode.
"You're Entering A HIGH TAX ZONE," the signs warn.
They are the latest salvo from anti-tax activist Robin Ficker, who is leading a campaign to limit the County Council's power to exceed a cap on property taxes. Montgomery voters will decide the issue in a ballot referendum on Election Day.
But if passersby in downtown Bethesda are any indication, the signs have created more head-scratching than anti-tax fervor.
Colleen Henderson, 48, a photographer who lives in Bethesda, said she has seen the signs but didn't know what they meant.
"I'm trying to figure out are there tax zones here where taxes are higher than in other places?" Henderson said.
"I puzzled over it," said Peter Maher, 67, a Bethesda retiree. He said he guessed -- wrongly, it turns out -- that the signs on Old Georgetown Road referred to a special taxing district in downtown Bethesda.
Bethesda resident Dinah Seiver, 52, a lawyer, came the closest with her guess. "They might be from Neil -- what's his name? That lawyer. Flicker? Maybe it's coming from him."
Ficker, 61, a Bethesda lawyer and Boyds resident, has plenty of signage experience. He is well known in Montgomery for his colorful, irreverent and frequent political campaigns, often to curb government spending.
He said the signs simply reflect a popular sentiment: The county, he said, takes too much in taxes, can't control its spending and is making it impossible for all but wealthy and two-income families to live here. He said his ballot proposal would prevent the County Council from overriding the legal cap on property tax receipts by more than the rate of inflation. The council has voted to exceed the cap the past three years.
"It's just time to say what's on people's minds," Ficker said of his "high tax zone" message and why the signs don't mention the ballot question.
But council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large) said he suspects Ficker is trying to skirt the county's sign ordinance. County law allows temporary signs, including campaign signs, to be on private property up to 30 days without a permit. Ficker's signs went up last month, almost three months before Election Day.
Silverman chalked up the anti-tax campaign to "another Ficker folly." It takes seven of the nine council members to agree to exceed the property tax cap. The council needs that leeway, Silverman said, to raise money during economic slumps. Recently, he said, income tax revenues have fallen, while demands on the school system and other services have continued to increase.
Without the ability to exceed the property tax cap, Silverman said, the county would lose $94.4 million in revenue in the next fiscal year and $1.6 billion total over the next six fiscal years. Half of that, he said, would come from the schools budget.
"We're not hearing the community say, 'Don't add more cops and firefighters, don't reduce our class sizes, don't put more buses on the road, we want you to hold taxes down,' " Silverman said. "That's just not the message we're getting."
Ficker said he's not violating any political signage rules. The signs are on private property, he said, and are merely stating those residents' personal views. He likened them to yard signs saying "Support Our Troops."
He said he and others erected the signs to protest the jump in their recent property tax bills. It's just a coincidence, he said, that the signs went up before an election. However, Ficker said, his anti-tax campaign "will tie the two together" by putting stickers on the signs that will point people to a Web site for his ballot question.
Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., an independent political polling firm in Bethesda, said the signs are ineffective because they send a "confused message." He said he has seen them around but didn't know what they referred to until a reporter told him.
"If you go to Takoma Park and see that sign, you think, 'What are they doing in Takoma Park to cause my taxes to be so high?' " Haller said.
Ficker, he added, "has always stretched the envelope on where he puts signs up and what kind."
Henry Powell III, 45, of Kensington said he has one of the signs in his front yard on Connecticut Avenue because he believes he lives in a high tax zone.
"I'm happy with the school system," said Powell, a manager at UPS. "But I think the government could run a little more effectively."
But others with signs in their yards said they weren't sure what they meant. Two women in Kensington said "some man" asked whether he could stick a sign in their yards, but they didn't know what it was about. Another man with two signs in his yard said he had them up as a joke.