When the national tax revolt came to Prince George's County in 1978, it provoked a decidedly unheroic response from many elected officials: They ducked.
Much of officialdom publicly supported or remained mute while privately expressing concerns about the property-tax freeze proposal known as TRIM (Tax Reform Initiative by Marylanders). Some politicians who endorsed the measure publicly voted against it in the privacy of the polling place.
"It's not something that will go down in the rewrite of Kennedy's 'Profiles in Courage,' " said County Executive Parris Glendening, who in 1978 was up for reelection to the County Council. "I don't know of any elected leaders on the ballot at the time, myself included, who stood up and said, 'This is wrong, this is bad.' People voiced their opposition privately but were afraid of it publicly."
Today, as Prince George's looks at an increasingly bleak financial future, many of those same officials look back and wish they had followed the lead of their counterparts in Montgomery County, who in the same election helped defeat a similar tax freeze proposal.
At the same time, the Prince George's politicians agree that their county, a once-rural outpost on Washington's eastern border, was a natural place to spawn a local version of the antitax, antigovernment movement.
"It was the answer to the number one concern of my constituents," said state Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller, who supported TRIM in 1978. "Big taxes and big government."
To understand how TRIM came to Prince George's and where it is going, it is helpful to look at the past, and see how things have changed in a county that farmers, middle-level government workers, and more recently, a sizable minority population, call home.
What occurred in Prince George's two decades ago in many ways laid the groundwork for the property-tax revolt. The 1960s were a time of exceptional population growth in the county, from about 357,000 residents in 1960 to 660,000 in 1970. By comparison, the next decade's net growth was only about 5,000 people.
Much of that new population fled from the crowded and increasingly black Southeast sections of the District of Columbia that border Prince George's. Many of those people were white, less affluent and drawn to inexpensive, rental garden apartments that were springing up inside the Capital Beltway.
The population explosion forced construction of roads, houses and schools. The development pattern was disorganized--commercial strips sprouted alongside pristine rural roads; apartment complexes mushroomed virtually on top of one another; shoddy shopping malls were zoned near quiet residential areas despite community hostility.
Unrestrained development, often over citizen objections, spurred allegations of corruption in the zoning process, some of which proved to be true. A county commissioner, the head of the planning commission and several developers went to prison in what became widely known as the Prince George's zoning scandals.
Those scandals contributed to a reputation for corruption that the county has never entirely shaken. They became part of the county's psyche, fostering a strong strain of antigovernment feeling that still exists.
Francis B. Francois, a member of the board of county commissioners and the successor council from 1966 until he retired from politics in 1980, remembers the time of exceptional growth:
"Where the government used to do roads, weed control and jail and court, and then go home, in the '60s we started talking about giving aid for model cities. Then we built the libraries, got into well-baby clinics, expanded police services. Growth for growth's sake was thought to be a good thing.
"Pretty soon it was pretty urban and the cost of maintaining the services was more than in the city because the suburbs were less dense. We tended to respond in some way to all the progams presented to us. That added up in terms of tax dollars."
And because the tax on real estate was the county's largest single revenue source, homeowners, more than any other group, were footing the bill.
Property-tax bills were made more burdensome than in other areas by three factors: the county had little industrial and commercial base from which to draw tax dollars; the federal government and other tax-exempt groups occupied more than 20 percent of all the county's land, and an unusually large percentage of housing units--45 percent--were apartments, whose occupants do not directly pay property taxes.
While apartment dwellers constitute nearly 38 percent of the county's population, the buildings in which they live supply slightly less than 9 percent of the property taxes.
By the 1970s the fervor to respond to all social problems and interest groups was beginning to wear thin. The once-rural county of few services and low taxes had the highest tax rate in the area, above that of the District, and Fairfax and Montgomery counties.
The government "had many services but most people were using only a few," recalled Francois. "By the early '70s we started to hear, 'Hey, why don't we cut the budget. The fire people would say, 'Hey, cut parks.' The park people would say, 'Cut those senior citizens programs.' The seniors would say, 'Cut the education programs.' If we had listened to everyone, there wouldn't have been anything left."
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the county's member of Congress who served in the Maryland Senate from 1966 to 1979, said, "We built a classroom a day in the '60s in Prince George's County. We all used to crow about that. But we overdeveloped. We developed too quickly. We put an enormous strain on the system."
William Goodman, who is known as the "father" of the TRIM amendment, sees that time as having set the atmosphere for adoption of TRIM nearly a decade later. "It was suburban sprawl with a huge need for urban services and no industrial base. I believe they the voters thought they were getting ripped off," said Goodman, a former Democratic state senator and unsuccessful candidate for the Republican nomination for county executive last year.
By the mid-1970s there was a strong antiproperty-tax feeling in Prince George's, fueled by rising assessments that boosted tax bills even though the county kept the rate the same.
Political leaders, sensitive to homeowner voting power, tried various methods to hold down tax bills. But given the expansive bureaucracy, an unwillingness to cut programs supported by vocal interest groups, and the national problem of inflated assessments, they had little luck.
Winfield M. Kelly Jr., a Democrat elected county executive in 1974 in large part by appealing to the homeowners and attacking his Republican predecessor's inability to hold down property taxes, spent much of his four years in office looking for alternatives to the property tax.
Other counties implemented telephone, energy and other local nuisance taxes to ease the property-tax burden. Kelly succeeded only in persuading state legislators to approve a renters tax that played directly to homeowner beliefs that the apartment dwellers were not paying their fair share. But that tax proved controversial as well, and was allowed to lapse.
While the debate over tax bills raged, Prince George's was undergoing a profound change in population that ultimately added to the impetus for a tax revolt.
Like the rest of the nation, the county experienced a continuing drop in school enrollment. In the '60s, two out of three families had children in the county schools. But by the late 1970s, the ratio had reversed--two out of three families had no children in the system, yet schools still consumed 60 percent of the county budget, prompting many to complain that their tax dollars were going for services they did not use.
The influx of new residents, many from the District, continued, but this time they were blacks who moved into the less expensive and often dilapidated garden apartments being vacated by whites. This new population began to shift the racial makeup of Prince George's, and especially, of its schools, as more blacks than whites had school-age children.
A 1973 decision by a federal judge in Baltimore ordering busing to desegregate the county schools accelerated that racial change. While the busing was carried out without much controversy, many whites, including longtime homeowners, fled the public schools by moving out of the county or sending their children to private schools.
In the view of many Prince George's residents, busing and the decline in school-age population in the county, as in the nation, were key ingredients in the tax revolt. They helped create essentially two separate counties: those with children in the school system and those without.
Sue V. Mills, a conservative former school board member now in a second term on the County Council, said she believes the atmosphere for TRIM came directly from dissatisfaction with the school system. "People are acutely aware of education and its failures and successes. And the costs of education were going up while the test scores were going down."
In addition, she said, parents felt alienated from the educational process because of the liberal reforms of the late 1960s and early 1970s. "It made schools strange," she said. "Busing was the straw that broke the camel's back. They county homeowners and parents felt they had absolutely lost control."
All of those factors coalesced in the 1978 election in which TRIM was adopted and Republican Lawrence J. Hogan, a former member of Congress who pledged to cut the budget, was elected county executive.
The election occurred just five months after California adopted Proposition 13, the initiative that was the inspiration for those who created TRIM.
Goodman, who switched to the GOP after he was dumped from his legislative seat with the help of Democratic Party leaders, said he recalls hearing about Proposition 13 from relatives in southern California. It fit in with his feelings that county government was too big, too wasteful and taxed too much.
He was joined in the effort by state Del. David Bird, who like Goodman believes government has become involved in too many things. But Bird's main goal was somewhat different from Goodman's: He felt the property tax was unfair, falling only on homeowners. Bird thought government should rely more on the income tax, which hits everyone.
The two of them, both homeowners, worked through several drafts for more than a month to come up with wording that would freeze taxes but not be as harsh as California's, which actually rolled back tax collections.
They settled on language that capped property-tax collections at the level collected in 1979, $143.9 million. The proposal allowed no increases for inflation or from new development and essentially took away from government the task of setting the tax rate: As assessments went up, the tax rate would have to fall.
Taxes collected from new houses, office parks and buildings would not add to the tax base, but would have to be factored into the $143.9 million pool, again forcing tax rates down. Less harsh than Proposition 13 in the short run, it would over time be more of a tightening financial bind.
Within a few weeks the two men, and a small band of others, collected more than the necessary 10,000 signatures from mall shoppers. "All we said was 'freeze property taxes,' " recalled Goodman. "It was freeze that the people wanted. We benefited from the publicity about Proposition 13--it eliminated an awful lot of the need to educate people."
As quickly as the public signed on, so too did the politicians. From Kelly on down in the Democratic Party, which then held every elective job in the county, support for TRIM was nearly unanimous. The tiny Republican Party and its eventually victorious candidate for county executive, Hogan, wholeheartedly endorsed it.
Yet even as they publicly endorsed TRIM, many of the politicians privately expressed serious reservations. But the taxpayer revolt and its successes elsewhere scared them into keeping those fears to themselves.
Today, many of them are still so fearful of the sentiment that led to TRIM that they will not publicly say they voted against it in 1978. As one such politician put it: "The intensity of debate on this thing is just berserk."
Kelly, now in private business, says of his 1978 support for TRIM: "Privately in 1978 I said, 'It's wrong, it's going to ultimately destroy the county.' But my aides said it would be political suicide not to back it . Everyone said, 'If you don't it's gonna run over you. You better put your name on this steamroller, Kelly.' My compromise with myself was that I could live with it for two years and then modify it."
John McDonough, a zoning lawyer and Democratic Party wunderkind who ran the Kelly campaign, said of that lack of debate on TRIM, "It was a boulder that was going to roll on through. There wasn't much point in debating the nuances."
State Sen. Miller, whose conservative rural area in southern Prince George's has voted twice for TRIM, said he resolved to keep any concerns about the tax freeze to himself in 1978.
"I knew what I thought would happen, and I knew what my constituents were saying four or five to one, and I resolved the matter in favor of my constituents," he said. "People politicians felt very much they would rather be a live dog than a dead lion."
Kenneth V. Duncan, who was to spend the next four years trying to balance TRIM budgets as Hogan's chief administrative officer, recalls that within days of the election, "I heard people saying they didn't realize what they were voting for. They knew it was some sort of freeze but that's all."
A few weeks later, in his new job, Duncan said he remembers the fear and excitement with which he approached the job of making a tax freeze work.
"I didn't see how the county could make it four years under TRIM," he recalled. "I had supervised several council budgets as chief council administrator and had seen cost-of-living adjustments that were four, five, six percent. I thought, how can you avoid those costs of living, how can you avoid replacing vehicles, how can you avoid the harm to the infrastructure . . . We managed. But you have to say the outlook is very grim."
Tomorrow: Winners and Losers.