LEADERS OF a property tax revolt and four members of the Montgomery County Council have struck a deal to place a restrictive tax-formula measure on the ballot in November. The proposal arises from a regionwide concern about local governments' dependence on the property tax to meet spending needs. But it is another version of a rigid tax-lid approach that voters should reject in favor of retaining flexibility for elected officials in their making of financial decisions. Under this measure, which is being advanced as a proposed charter amendment, the amount of property tax revenue collected by the county could not rise beyond the previous year's total plus the percentage increase for inflation -- no real increase. Only a vote of seven members of the next nine-member council could override this limit.
The four council members who agreed to push this restriction see the move as recognition of taxpayers' concern about recent assessment increases. The taxpayer group they dealt with had been seeking an even more stringent restriction. The movement has been effective in raising questions about county budgets, and it did cause elected officials to accept the need to offset the tax consequences of large increases in the market values of homes in the county. In an election year, it may be easier for some council incumbents to hop aboard this tax-formula bandwagon than to stand up for flexibility by accountable elected representatives in addressing the county's total spending and revenue requirements.
But it is more than a little likely, as County Executive Sidney Kramer has warned, that this tax limitation could cut into spending on education, police and courts, social services and school board plans for program improvements. Mr. Kramer also has noted that if costs of social service programs -- notably public health services -- continue to rise faster than the rate of inflation, all of these other programs might have to absorb disproportionate cuts.
If a simple majority of the council finds it necessary to raise more property tax revenues, it should be able to act -- and to accept any consequences at the polls. Montgomery County voters have a strong and impressive history of monitoring the workings of their government without saddling their elected officials with cumbersome restraints on their best judgment. There's no good reason to abandon that tradition this fall.