More than 100,000 Montgomery County households received a stern warning in the mail this week, one threatening mass firings of teachers, deep cuts in police and fire budgets and rollbacks in services to seniors.
It is the work of the Vote No Coalition, which has sent three mailings in the past week to defeat Question A on Tuesday's ballot. The measure would eliminate the County Council's ability to exceed the property tax cap imposed by Montgomery voters 14 years ago.
The cap limits annual increases in the property tax to roughly the rate of inflation. The cap can be broken, however, with the approval of seven of the council's nine members. The council has exceeded the cap in developing budgets for the past three years.
Council members and County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) said removing the council's power to override the cap would force severe cuts in programs and impair the ability of elected officials to respond to emergencies.
"Thanks to another bad idea from Robin Ficker, your future is at risk," the mailer states beneath a photo of three smiling children.
Ficker, an anti-tax activist leading the campaign to approve Question A, has been petitioning referendums onto county ballots since the 1970s. He said Montgomery leaders are risking the county's future by driving up tax rates and bloating the budget.
"There is groupthink in Rockville," Ficker said. "It's a groupthink of, 'Let's tax along to get along.' "
Ficker accused the Vote No Coalition of preying on the fears of residents. His opponents say they are merely warning voters of the consequences of approval.
Question A is one of three ballot issues that could bring fundamental changes to county government and politics.
Question B, also petitioned onto the ballot by Ficker, would limit County Council members and the executive to three four-year terms. Question C, promoted by the Montgomery County Civic Federation, would scrap at-large council seats for a system in which all council members are elected by district.
Bankrolled by unions, elected officials and the business community, the Vote No Coalition has raised more than $60,000 to defeat the three questions.
Ficker, a lawyer who has had most of his referendums defeated at the polls, is their favorite target.
"Robin is like an alligator game that kids play -- where it pops up and then you knock it down and then it pops up in another place," said council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large).
In 1990, Montgomery voters sought to limit their property tax burden by approving the cap. For the next 11 years, county leaders observed the limit, even staying below it for six of those years.
But in the past three years, the council has invoked its "supermajority" privilege. It voted to exceed the limit by $8 million in fiscal 2003, $30 million in 2004 and $37 million in the current year.
Officials said the increases were driven primarily by growing school enrollment and increased costs for homeland security.
If voters approve Question A, county budget officials said, the council would have to lower its property tax rate for next year from about $1.07 per hundred dollars of assessed value to about 99 cents, said Timothy Firestine, county finance director. The average reduction in tax bills would be about $270, Firestine said.
Officials said the cut would mean the county must trim $94 million out of next year's budget -- on top of a projected $51 million shortfall.
With public schools and Montgomery College accounting for 60 percent of the county's $3.3 billion budget, county leaders said education and other essential services would bear the brunt of any cuts.
"You could cut all the fluff you want, and you would still not get to $94 million," said County Budget Director Beverley Swaim-Staley.
Duncan has been traveling the county warning that 1,000 teaching positions -- nearly 10 percent of the school district's teaching staff -- six libraries, three fire stations, two police districts and most services for senior citizens would have to be eliminated.
Bonnie Cullison, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, said the loss of 1,000 teaching positions would have a "grave impact on structural programs" and lead to larger class sizes.
The shortfalls would become even more dramatic in the future, officials warned. Some estimates project a $1.6 billion shortfall by 2011 if Question A is approved.
Ficker said documents used by the county to project future budgets call for the council to exceed the cap in each of the next six years. That, he said, amounts to a de facto repeal of a charter provision approved by voters.
Others who support the passage of Question A, including the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee, accuse Duncan of resorting to fear mongering.
"The power establishment is such they will do and say whatever it takes to get their way," said Steve Abrams, chairman of the county GOP.
Abrams, a candidate for school board, noted that the county could recoup some of the money with increases elsewhere, such as in the energy, telephone or admissions tax.
But Firestine said the budget cannot be sustained without a stable revenue source such as the property tax.
"You are never going to offset meeting your needs by raising those other taxes," Firestine said.
Although Ficker rails against the growth in the county budget, which increased by more than $1 billion in the past seven years, the average tax burden on residents, adjusted for inflation, is $110 less than it was a decade ago, county officials said.