Perennial candidate Robin Ficker has a history of causing controversy, and this election season is no different. Ballot Question A, which Ficker brought to the ballot, has raised a contentious debate among about fiscal responsibility and the role of the elected County Council.
Question A would take away all authority of the County Council to increase property tax rates above the rate of inflation. Since 1990, the annual rise in property tax revenues has been tied to the rate of inflation, but the Council is allowed override the cap with a “super majority,” seven out of nine council members. For eleven years, the county collected only the previous year’s tax receipts plus the percentage increase in the consumer price index. But for the last three years, the Council has voted to exceed the cap.
Ficker, along with groups like the Montgomery County Taxpayers League and the Montgomery County Republican Party Central Committee, wants to put an end to that. They say that county spending is too liberal and that the ballot measure emphasizes greater accountability in the budgeting. “We believe that there needs to be some discipline in the budget process and we don’t see that happening,” said Marvin Weinman, president of the Taxpayers League. “If you had a personal budget, how would you handle it? Would you take three vacations a year if you couldn’t afford it?” he asked.
Weinman cited a cumulative 13.18 percent raise in county residents’ tax bills last year and a projected $1.5 billion increase in property taxes over five years if the charter overrides continue at the same rate.
Weinman said that one reason county spending goes unfettered is that citizens are not adequately connected to county fiscal decisions.
“We feel that the public doesn’t understand the budget process and we’re trying to educate the public and simplify the process,” he said. The Taxpayer League will make a presentation about Question A in an Oct. 21 forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
Council President Steve Silverman (D-at large) called Question A “another Ficker folly” and said that the $100 million in cuts it would force would be devastating to county programs. “To put this in perspective, the entire library budget is only $30 million,” he said. “We’re finally getting to a point where the economy is growing and were putting resources into our school system and public safety among other things … and this would be a major step backwards.”
The Taxpayer’s League and Republican Central Committee “don’t represent the mainstream of thinking in Montgomery County,” Silverman said. To their concerns about fiscal responsibility, “there’s already a solution,” Silverman said. “If people are unhappy with the fiscal approach of the council, that’s what we have elections for. It’s a seven out of nine requirement. … It’s very hard for seven of nine Councilmembers to agree on anything.”
Another proponent of Question A is Steve Abrams, chair of the Montgomery County Republican Party Central Committee and candidate for Board of Education. Abrams said that the county government “knows how to spend but doesn’t know how to provide the kind of oversight to see that their spending is done effectively.
“We have absolutely no fiscal discipline,” he said.
Abrams said that residents with fixed incomes are penalized with higher taxes as their property values increase, since they do not realize that increased value unless they move or sell their home. Property tax, he said, are not the fairest way of distributing the tax burden. Instead, the county should cut frivolous spending and seek more money from the state. He pointed to Pennsylvania, where slot machine revenues have been directed to ease property taxes.
Abrams said that opponents of Question A rely too heavily on labeling the motion as “simply another Ficker amendment” and that they are using “scare tactics” when they talk about service cuts and the need for funds to offset possible emergencies.
But county council members and other opponents of Question A contend that the current system and supermajority requirement already keeps tax increases in check, and that the extra funds are needed for education, social services, and as a cushion in case of a catastrophic event.
“This would be terrible for Potomac and all of Montgomery County” said Councilmember Howard Denis (R-1). “[It would] put us in a fiscal straight jacket.” Denis said that passing the charter amendment would mean cutting $100 million from the county budget, money he says is not only needed for schools and services, but also for a new budget item — homeland security. Denis said that the county will have a department of homeland security just as the federal government does. “I’m a belt and suspenders kind of guy,” he said. “I don’t like to take any chances.”
As for the charge that county spending is reckless, “I wish some of the people who were saying things like that could be with me when I go around to community events” and hear citizens talk about the need to restore trash collection in the parks, better fund school projects, and make neighborhood improvements, Denis said.
Denis mentioned a recent high school football game and recognizing how much programs like high school athletics mean to the community. As a councilmember, he knows that bleachers, sod, and lights aren’t free. “I look at these things and I think of dollar signs, because I know what these things cost,” he said.
“It’s a struggle between the taxes we hate and the services we love, and we have to strike a balance and I believe we have,” Denis said. He added, “I’ve never voted for a Ficker amendment in my life and I don’t intend to start now.”