THE VOTERS of Montgomery County will face a most confusing set of four ballot questions Nov. 6 that propose various incompatible ways to muck up the county charter with property-tax amendments. The smart shoppers on Election Day -- those voters who can see through formulas and recognize how these amendments can play financial hell with local government decision-making -- will vote "No" to Questions F,G, H and I. By rejecting all four proposals, county voters can avoid the possibility that conflicting proposals might be approved, sending the whole process to the courts; and they can protect the flexibility of their local officials not only in dealing with county financial matters but in negotiating with Annapolis for their fair share of state money.
It may help to know that two of the proposals -- Questions G and H -- are smudged with the fingerprints of the county's most mischievous political trasher, Robin Ficker. Question G is the Yesteryear Fix: it would limit the property-tax rate to the fiscal year 1988 level. Period. Question H would forbid the county from advancing money for projects eligible for state funds. This is a great one to ride with to Annapolis, where the lawmakers from elsewhere are just dying to dole out state money to counties that don't bother to raise any local money for the cause.
Question I would limit property-tax increases to three-fourths of the previous year's inflation rate unless seven of nine county council members voted to override the limit. This is the math originally proposed by a group of petition-passers calling themselves Fairness in Taxation. But now FIT leaders don't like this proposal anymore, because they got together with four county council members and whipped up another version they could push. But a group of Republicans took the issue to court and forced this proposal onto the ballot.
That revised "Son of FIT," Question F, is now being circulated for quick sale as the "generous" proposal -- but it's still a tax-lid approach that has no place in the charter or in the rules under which elected officials make important decisions. Under this measure, 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 -- which means no real increase; as in Question I, only a vote of seven of the nine members could override.
Voters don't have to love their property taxes to reject every one of these proposals. On the contrary, if they prefer to leave all financial options to a simple majority of the council and let every council member accept all consequences next time at the polls, the way to say so is "No" four times. The people of Montgomery County have a long and distinguished record of monitoring their government officials. They don't need to load up the charter and hamstring every official with restraints on his or her best judgments. The tax burden can be spread differently, and the county can strive for better deals from Annapolis without the kinds of financial handcuffs that other localities around the country -- and next door in Maryland -- found so damaging in the long run. Questions F, G, H and I all deserve rejection.