Guest column by Isiah Leggett.
Since leaving public office after 12 years as County Executive in December of 2018, I have been doing some travelling (pre-COVID), enjoying my family, and serving on a number of boards and commissions including as a member of the University of Maryland Board of Regents.
What I have not been doing is involving myself in County politics.
Why now? Because I believe that two measures on the November ballot will seriously impact this County in significantly negative ways.
Question B is the latest offering from Robin Ficker. Question B would prohibit any increase beyond inflation in property tax revenue. The County already has the 1990 Fairness in Taxation law, which I authored to avoid a referendum with even more draconian limits a la Proposition 13 in Calfornia. That 1990 law limited property tax revenue from one year to the next to inflation plus the value of new construction, unless overridden by a super-majority of the County Council.
Additionally, a 2008 referendum approved by the voters upped the requirement to a unanimous vote of the nine-member Council to override the Charter limit.
I was elected County Executive just as the Great Recession hit this County. Over my 12 years, I closed budget gaps of over $3.5 billion. In 2011 alone, our budget gap was over one billion dollars. What did we do? We reduced the County workforce by 10 percent – 1,254 positions. I remember that number because it seemed to me that most of those folks contacted me personally. I furloughed employees – including myself. We restructured County employee benefits and retirement to save the County hundreds of millions of dollars. We renegotiated promised labor agreements. While maintaining critical services, we tightened the belt on all other County spending.
Some of our surrounding jurisdictions did some of these things. We did them all.
And, yes, after all that, we had to exceed the Charter limit on property taxes to help close those gaps.
Exceeding the limit was a last resort, not a first. That’s the way it should be in effectively managing a budget.
Given all this, I am proud that over my 12 years, property taxes only went up a total of one percent over inflation. And all County taxes as a percentage of County residents’ income actually decreased by five percent. That didn’t happen by accident. I truly needed all the tools at my disposal.
Under most circumstances, the Charter limit in property tax increases is practical. But there are those years where circumstances mean it isn’t.
Under Question B, even if we had four years in which the County didn’t even go to the maximum allowable tax, saving taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, we could not — in a fifth year, when we were not so lucky — exceed the Charter limit by even a nickel.
That’s not penny-wise and pound-foolish. That’s just foolish.
Such a cap critically compromises our ability to deal with emergencies, whether natural or man-made. It could adversely affect the ability of our public safety agencies to protect our lives and property. It could compromise our Triple-A bond rating, increasing our annual borrowing costs by tens of millions of dollars.
Keep in mind that about half of the County budget goes directly to the schools. Public safety spending is 10 percent. Debt service on borrowing for things we build is about eight percent. That means over two-thirds of the budget already spoken for – without including Montgomery College, health and human services, transportation, libraries, housing, and more.
Forty-seven percent of County revenue comes from the property tax. Forty-two percent comes from the County income tax, which is at the legal limit and cannot be raised. An additional five or six percent comes from energy taxes. Add this all together and that’s about 95 percent of the money we take in.
Question B is a bad idea at any time. Right now, given the pandemic, it is totally nuts.
Question D is likewise a bad idea. In a previous referendum, some years past, it lost overwhelmingly. And rightly so.
Now we have a mixed system — four at-large seats and five geographical district seats. This mix helps ensure local representation, plus it builds in and strengthens an overall County perspective. County residents are represented by their district member and four at-large members. Each citizen gets five votes. Question D would limit that number to only one.
Jurisdictions across America are finding that this blend of at- large and district seats works best – better than all at-large and, yes, better than all district as proposed in Question D.
Change can be a good thing. Or not. Our job, as voters, is to separate change that moves us forward versus change that undermines common sense and practicality. Questions B and D will both throw a wrench into the operational machinery of local government – to no good end.
The writer served on the Montgomery County Council from 1986 to 2002. He was County Executive from 2006 to 2018.