Questions A and B are competing initiatives to limit property taxes in the wealthy suburb of 1 million. Questions C and D are differing proposals for how to restructure the council.
Question D calls for the county to be divided into nine, rather than five, districts and to have all members of the council elected by district, eliminating the four at-large seats.
Nine Districts for MoCo, the citizen group behind this measure, says the change would improve geographic representation on the council. The group notes seven of nine sitting council members live in the Silver Spring or Bethesda areas. Council President Sidney Katz (D-District 3) lives in Gaithersburg, and Council member Craig Rice (D-District 2) lives in Darnestown.
Critics of the measure say eliminating at-large candidates, who are meant to represent all county residents, would reduce the number of council members that residents get to vote for from five to one and lead to parochialism on the dais.
Citing these concerns, the county’s bipartisan Charter Review Commission voted this summer to support keeping the council structure as it is.
Former county executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett (D) said the nine-district proposal is shortsighted. Leggett, who served as a council member for 16 years before becoming the county’s top elected official, pointed out that he lives in Burtonsville, in the less-developed eastern swath of Montgomery, and worked alongside lawmakers from across the county during his time in office.
“There may be short periods of time where the balance may be somewhat different,” Leggett said. “It doesn’t mean things will stay this way.”
A respected voice in Montgomery, Leggett has mostly shied away from weighing in on local politics since retiring in 2018. But he recently joined with former Republican congresswoman Connie Morella, businessman David Blair and tech executive Carmen Ortiz Larsen to campaign against the nine-district proposal.
“I felt very strongly that sitting on the sidelines would harm Montgomery County far into the future,” Leggett said.
Many of the issues facing the county, from transportation and housing to health inequity and crime, can only be effectively addressed with the “countywide perspective” of at-large members, Leggett said. He argued that approving Question D would be a mistake but stopped short of endorsing the council’s alternative, Question C.
Spearheaded by council member Evan Glass (D-At Large) and supported by seven of his eight colleagues, that option seeks to add two district seats to the council while retaining the four at-large positions.
Since the council last added positions in 1986, the population has grown by more than 60 percent, census data shows. D.C. and Prince George’s County, which both have smaller populations, have 13 and 11 members, respectively, on their legislative bodies.
“Now is the time to create better representation by increasing the size of the council,” Glass said. The county will undergo a redistricting process next year based on the results of the 2020 census, and residents should make use of this election to add two districts, he added.
The Montgomery County Democratic Party, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 500 and several activist groups such as Jews United for Justice have endorsed the council-backed proposal.
The Montgomery County Republican Party supports the nine-district alternative, and the Greater Olney Civic Association -- which backed that option before the Question C alternative was proposed -- is scheduled to consider both questions at a meeting on Oct. 13.
Advocates behind Nine Districts for MoCo argue that adding two council members, instead of eliminating the at-large seats, would “cost taxpayers millions of dollars” — the same argument opponents made in neighboring Prince George’s in 2018, when voters elected to add two at-large seats.
Given that Montgomery County might face up to $1 billion in revenue shortfalls due to coronavirus-related shutdowns, said group chair Kimblyn Persaud, chalking up additional government expenses would be “fiscally irresponsible.”
In Montgomery, each council member receives an annual salary of about $140,370 and a budget of $535,000 to staff and operate their office. Two new lawmakers would add up to about $1.35 million annually.
“Increasing representation will benefit citizens,” Glass said, adding that the pandemic has shown how important local governments are to ensuring the well-being of residents.
Question B, proposed by Republican activist and frequent political candidate Robin Ficker, seeks to bar the county from raising property tax revenue above a cap pegged to inflation. While the county has calculated property taxes using this formula for 30 years, it has the option of overriding the cap if every lawmaker votes to do so. That happened in 2016, resulting in an 8.7 percent property tax hike.
Ficker’s measure would prevent the county from breaching the cap even with a unanimous vote from the council. “They have to learn how to live within their budget,” Ficker said of lawmakers.
Question A is the council-backed alternative, which proposes capping the property tax rate, rather than tax revenue, and retaining the council’s right to override the cap. This would help simplify the process of calculating property taxes, said council member Andrew Friedson (D-District 1).
“Your property tax rate next year will remain the same as your tax rate this year, unless all nine County Council members vote to increase it,” he said. “No complicated formulas. No need for a PhD in economic theory to calculate it.”
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said Wednesday he hopes residents vote “yes” on Question A.
A coalition of unions and advocacy groups, called Montgomery Neighbors against Question B, launched a campaign Thursday to lobby against Ficker’s proposal. The Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors, which represents nearly 12,000 real estate professionals in the area, says its position is to vote “yes” on Question A and “no” on Ficker’s alternative. Leggett, Morella, Blair and Ortiz Larsen also oppose Ficker’s proposal.
Morella, who represented the 8th Congressional District from 1987 through 2003, said the proposed cap on property taxes would “muzzle our elected officials,” preventing them from being able to respond to unexpected emergencies like the coronavirus crisis.
She said she plans to vote “no” on all four ballot initiatives.
Correction: Earlier versions of this article incorrectly said the Greater Olney Civic Association supports creating a council with only nine district seats. The association backed that option before the Question C alternative was proposed, which would add two district seats but keep four at-large seats. The association is scheduled to consider both options at a meeting on Oct. 13.