Two such proposals appear on this fall’s ballot, and such is the County Council’s distaste for them that it added rival measures to compete with each. In both cases — one involving property tax increases; the other, the composition of the council itself — the citizens’ initiative is a bad idea. Yet neither of the council’s competing proposals is preferable to the status quo. Montgomery voters should vote against Questions A, B, C and D.
Questions A and B offer rival methods to limit increases to annual property taxes, which account for about a third of county tax-supported revenue. For 30 years, property tax revenue increases have been pegged to inflation, plus new construction, a strict ceiling exceeded rarely since 1990 that can be breached only if all nine council members agree.
On this year’s ballot, an initiative by veteran gadfly Robin Ficker (Question B) proposes locking in the current cap, with no breaching rights even for a unanimous council. The Question B proposal would make no difference in most years but could hamstring the county during economic slumps when the council tries to safeguard parks, libraries and other amenities. The competing, council-backed proposal (Question A) would set a different cap — on the property tax rate, rather than overall receipts. That would have yielded slightly more revenue — about $13 million annually since 2004, on average, a pittance against Montgomery’s nearly $6 billion budget. The council’s argument that its tax-cap proposal would help attract new employers to the county is unconvincing; just as likely, some might see it as a back-door tax increase. In fact, the current regime has worked well enough; the council has generally stuck to the limit, and county services are amply funded.
The other two ballot questions propose changes to the makeup of the nine-member council, which consists of four members elected at-large and five who represent districts. A plan to switch to nine individual districts (Question D) is backed by labor unions and real estate interests; they reckon they’d gain influence on a council stripped of at-large members. Yet an all-district council might also be more parochial.
The competing, council-backed blueprint (Question C) would retain the four at-large seats and add two district seats, for a total of 11 members. While it’s true the county’s population has boomed in recent decades, and some upcounty residents feel under-represented, it would take a finely honed ear to detect any broad clamor to expand a council that has done fine with nine members. As it is, every citizen can vote for five of the nine council seats — their own district representative, plus four elected at-large. That seems like plenty.