MONTGOMERY COUNTY figures on most lists of America's affluent places, and county residents, though ever more diverse, have come to expect public schools, parks, libraries and social programs to match. The county budget is garnished with grants to do-good nonprofit groups, sustenance for a handsome new arts center and other items that would be unaffordable frills in most jurisdictions. But soaring real estate assessments and booming school enrollments have made the tax bite more painful, and on Election Day voters in the county will be asked if they want to roll back property taxes by handcuffing the County Council to an inflexible revenue regime. It's a bad idea, and Montgomery voters should say no.
If adopted, "Question A" on the ballot would force the council to freeze property tax receipts, after adjustments for inflation and new construction -- with no exceptions. That would change the status quo since 1990, when voters approved a charter amendment pegging property taxes to inflation but also allowing the county to breach that limit on a vote of at least seven of the nine council members. For 11 years, the council stuck to the inflation-pegged limit, but for the past three it has voted unanimously to exceed it -- and by increasing margins. In the current fiscal year, that will mean breaching the limit by $37 million on a budget of $3.3 billion; by 2011, the breach would reach $376 million. Cumulatively over the next six years, Montgomery's property tax receipts would exceed the inflation-pegged level by $1.6 billion, assuming no change in the tax rate, according to county estimates.
Public spending in the county has far outstripped inflation over the past five years, though at least half of the increase is attributable to the school system, one of the fastest-growing in the nation. Some County Council members have expressed doubts about the sustainability of such a supercharged tax-and-spend program, and with some reason. At current trends, Montgomery homeowners can expect their property taxes to jump by at least 50 percent, and possibly double, over the next seven years; the owner of a house of average value, about $320,000, who pays roughly $3,200 in real estate taxes now, could get hit with a bill of $5,000 or more early in the next decade. That has encouraged anti-tax activist Robin Ficker, an aggressive Republican trial lawyer who organized the current ballot question. Not that he needs much encouragement: Mr. Ficker has led a half-dozen such tax-cap campaigns in Montgomery previously, none successful but some nearly so. Mr. Ficker argues that the council, viewing higher home assessments as a pot of gold, has scrapped any notion of spending discipline. As part of his campaign, he has posted signs along major county roads that read, "You're Entering a HIGH TAX ZONE."
County spending may be set to rise too fast, but strict tax caps such as Mr. Ficker's take a meat-ax to public policy, stripping elected officials of discretion. Some county residents may be understandably shellshocked by rising home assessments (though by law, property tax bills for individual homeowners are limited to 10 percent annual increases). Others may be ready to pay more for the sake of further gains in the county's already excellent schools. Either way, there is a time-tested alternative to straitjacketing council members with tax caps: elections. Let Mr. Ficker apply his organizational acumen to encouraging anti-tax candidates to run for the council; just three of them would be sufficient to enforce the property tax discipline he finds lacking.