Tag Archives: Robin Ficker

JOF, Progressives Take on Ficker

By Adam Pagnucco.

Former school board member Jill Ortman-Fouse is co-chairing a new group opposing Question B, Robin Ficker’s charter amendment on property taxes, along with former Jamie Raskin staffer William Roberts. The group has attracted a large number of progressive institutional supporters as shown from its website below.

Right out of the gate, MoCo Against B has released this video going after the architect of Question B, Robin Ficker himself.

MoCo Against B’s press release appears below.


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Daniel Koroma
info@mocoagainstb.org

SCATHING NEW AD LAUNCHED AGAINST QUESTION B

New coalition of concerned citizens, voters, religious organizations, area non-profits and unions drops tough new ad opposing Robin Ficker’s Question B on Montgomery County ballots.

MONTGOMERY COUNTY, September 23, 2020 — Montgomery County residents today saw the first political advertisement on the contentious “Question B” that will be appearing on their ballots this election. The ad, called “Dangerous”, takes aim at the ballot question, which according to the clip, would hinder the County’s COVID response, cause slashes to schools and essential services, and threaten Montgomery County’s AAA bond rating.

The coalition behind the new ad is called Montgomery Neighbors Against Question B and is made up of concerned citizens, faith groups, teachers, firefighters, unions, and local non-profits. Montgomery Neighbors Against Question B is co-chaired by former Board of Education member Jill Ortman-Fouse and current Chair of the Upcounty Citizens Advisory Board, William Roberts. Their treasurer, Daniel Koroma, is a White Oak community advocate and serves as the Business Liaison for the Montgomery County Government. The group aims to defeat Question B by shining a spotlight on its own plain language, its disastrous outcomes, and the intentions of its creator.

“With this new ad, we want to show Montgomery County voters exactly what Question B says and just how damaging it would be to our schools, our essential services, and our economy,” said Laura Wallace with Jews United for Justice, one of the many organizations in the coalition. “Jewish tradition teaches that each of us has a duty to ensure that everyone in our community has the resources they need to thrive — especially during this pandemic. Now is not the time for fiscal irresponsibility.”

Question B is the brainchild of notorious heckler and right-wing operative Robin Ficker. If it were to pass, it would limit the County’s ability to generate revenue by limiting it to the previous year’s revenues, adjusted for inflation. It would strip the Council of its override power and could strangle local schools, emergency services, and other essential services.

“Question B is bad for communities of color. Black and Brown communities were already facing gaps in education, employment and small business support services before the COVID-19 pandemic. If Question B passes, our communities, already facing the devastation of COVID-19, would face the brunt of the negative impact of Question B” said Daniel Koroma.

Following the launch of this ad, Neighbors Against B will be working until polls close to educate voters on the fiscally irresponsible nature of Question B and encouraging them to oppose it with their vote.

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For additional information, please contact Daniel Koroma at info@mocoagainstb.org.

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Poll Out on Ballot Questions

By Adam Pagnucco.

A poll is in the field on MoCo’s ballot questions, much of it focused on Question B (Robin Ficker’s charter amendment on property taxes). The sponsor of the poll is unknown. A source supplied this description of the poll questions asked in a recent call.


Tell me if you’re favorable, somewhat favorable, not favorable.

Montgomery County PTA
Marc Elrich
Robin Ficker
Montgomery County Dem Party
Ike Leggett
MCEA
Larry Hogan
David Blair
MCDL – county government employee association

Do I approve or disapprove of the job performance of the Montgomery County Council?

Issues of taxes

Would you say that taxes are too high, are just right or too low?

Trying to explain A, B, C, D.

How certain are you that you’ll vote for or against these measures? Very certain or uncertain?

Are you the type of person who votes for all the ballots, for the state level ballot or the local ballots?

I know the ballot question language can be confusing. What makes it less likely to change your vote?

Question B would prohibit county council from raising taxes
Question B is opposed by the county council
Question B was placed on the ballot by a petition organized by Robin Ficker
If the question is passed the only way to raise property taxes above the limit is through a majority vote on…?

Which statement comes closer to my own view:

Supporters say that the county council should not be able to increase property taxes. The county should stick to a budget and not drastically increase property taxes. Housing and living costs are already high in an expensive area.
Question B ties the hands of our government officials. The opponents say there are already checks in place to restrict county taxes from being raised. This measure would damage the county’s triple AAA bond rating and cause more money to be spent on infrastructure projects.

Reason to vote on Question B – they listed these statements and asked does this make you more likely to vote for B or less likely. Is that convincing, somewhat convincing or all convincing.

There is a broad coalition of labor, business and non-profit organizations that oppose Question B including MCEA and building capital area of realtors and Progressive Maryland and Washington Post editorial board.
The Maryland Democratic Party opposes question B.
If the county council loses control over public taxes they will just levy different taxes and fees when they want. This will just shift the burden on tax payers in a different way.
Montgomery County schools are the best in the region but this question will remove flexibility from leaders to fund our schools and infrastructure.
Threaten the county’s triple AAA bond rating that allows us to fund infrastructure projects. If this passes taxpayers will have to pay more for roads, bridges and public buildings.
Question B will tie the hands of county government and restrict their ability to deal with the health pandemic, the housing crisis and severe weather incidents.
Question B was put on the ballot by a Republican anti-government activist trying to cut local government and reduce government services.
We should give officials the flexibility to make decisions and then hold them accountable during elections. Question B would take away the ability of officials to do their jobs.

How certain are you on voting against or for Question B?

Do you think of yourself as a Republican, Democrat, independent?

Are you a strong Democrat or not strong? (only 2 options).

Thinking in political terms are you a liberal, moderate, or conservative?

What is the last year of schooling you completed?

Is anyone in your household of Latino descent?

Do you consider yourself to be white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Latino or something else?

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MoCo Democrats Issue Statement on Ballot Questions

By Adam Pagnucco.

In the wake of their vote last night, the Montgomery County Democratic Party has issued the following statement on their position on this year’s ballot questions.

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Montgomery County Democratic Party Recommendations on 2020 Ballot Questions

For immediate release
September 17, 2020
Contact Linda Foley
chair@mcdcc.org

The Montgomery County Democratic Party has announced its voter recommendations on County and State Ballot Questions for the 2020 General Election. The recommendations were issued following a vote by more than 170 grassroots Democratic officials on September 16.

“The State and County questions on the 2020 ballot will have an enormous effect upon our ability to provide vital public services locally,” said Linda Foley, Chair of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee. “Democrats understand the value of public education, healthcare, transportation, public safety, libraries, and other vital services our State and County governments provide. That’s why we urge voters to vote FOR County Charter Questions A and C, vote FOR State Questions 1 and 2, and vote AGAINST County Charter Questions B and D.”

Here are the Montgomery County Democratic Party recommendations:

Vote FOR Question A: Council Property Tax Limit – Limit Tax Rate Increases
Question A establishes a cap on the property tax rate instead of the total revenue that the County can receive. This amendment would allow revenue to grow so County services can keep up with increased population and needs. Property tax rates will remain the same as this year. Any future increase would require an affirmative vote by all Councilmembers, as is currently required to raise the revenue limit.

Vote AGAINST Question B: Property Tax Limit – Prohibit Override
Question B is a bad way to fund public services. It prohibits the County Council from increasing the total revenue received from the property tax beyond the rate of inflation under any circumstances. This measure, proposed by Republican activist Robin Ficker, would cause a reduction in public services and threaten the County’s AAA bond rating, which enables the County to borrow at the lowest rate.

Vote FOR Question C: Increase to 11 Councilmembers
Question C expands the Council from 9 to 11 members. District Council seats would increase from 5 to 7. The number of At-Large seats would remain at 4. Each voter would continue to vote for 5 members of the Council. It reduces the number of residents represented by each District Councilmember, thus increasing representation.

Vote AGAINST Question D: Alter County Council Composition to 9 Districts
Question D eliminates the current Council composition of 4 At-Large and 5 single district seats. It establishes a Council of 9 members, each elected only by voters in their own district (eliminating At-Large seats). It would reduce from 5 to 1 the number of Councilmembers for whom each voter can vote.

Vote FOR Question 1: Balancing the State Budget
Question 1 allows the Maryland General Assembly to increase, decrease, or add items to the State budget provided such changes do not increase the total budget proposed by the Governor.

Vote FOR Question 2: Expansion of Commercial Gaming – Sports and Event
Question 2 would authorize the General Assembly to allow betting on sports and other competitive events to generate funding that must be used primarily for public education.

Vote YES to retain State Appellate Judges: Mary Ellen Barbera, E. Gregory Wells, and Steven B. Gould. The Party reviewed the records of the three State appellate judges on the ballot and supports their continuance in office.

By Authority: Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee, Dave Kunes, Treasurer.

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MoCo Democrats Take Position on Charter Amendments

By Adam Pagnucco.

As they do in every election year, officials of Montgomery County’s Democratic Party gathered tonight to take positions on charter amendments and ballot questions.

The standard format is for the party’s ballot question advisory committee, which studies such questions, to present information to the party’s precinct organization. The precinct organization, comprised of the party’s network of precinct officers, hears opinions, discusses the questions and takes votes. The party’s central committee takes the final votes establishing the party’s position, although they usually don’t go against the precinct organization’s stance unless the latter’s vote is close.

Tonight, County Executive Marc Elrich and a majority of the county council made their case to the precinct organization on the county charter amendments. The precinct organization voted in line with their recommendations and so did the party central committee. I don’t have exact vote tallies but my sources say they were all lopsided.

The ultimate vote by the MoCo Democrats was:

Yes to Question A, which was Council Member Andrew Friedson’s proposal to redo the county’s charter limit on property taxes.

No to Question B, which was Robin Ficker’s charter amendment to impose a hard cap on increases to property tax collections.

There was huuuuuge support for A and equally huuuuuge opposition to B (the Ficker amendment).

Yes to Question C, which was Council Member Evan Glass’s proposal to increase council district seats from five to seven and retain the current four at-large seats.

No to Question D, which is a charter amendment to convert the county council into nine district seats. No doubt the Democrats paid heed to the fact that Republicans support this proposal because they believe it might create a Republican council seat.

The party also voted to support state question 1 (which would grant more budgetary authority to the General Assembly over the governor’s budgets) and state question 2 (which would allow sports betting).

The exact language of all the questions and charter amendments can be seen on the official county ballot.

The party’s vote tonight is important because it will be expressed on its sample ballot, which is customarily mailed to hundreds of thousands of registered county Democrats. The vote is a particular blow to the Nine Districts for MoCo group, which has depicted its charter amendment as bipartisan but now has it supported by county Republicans and officially opposed by county Democrats.

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Why Progressives Should Support the Friedson Amendment

By Adam Pagnucco.

MoCo voters will see two charter amendments on property taxes on their ballots this fall. One of them was submitted by long-time anti-tax activist Robin Ficker, who delivered his petition signatures in February. The other was authored by Council Member Andrew Friedson and placed on the ballot by the county council. The Washington Post editorial board dislikes both, but for progressives, the choice is clear: the Friedson amendment is superior in providing adequate funding for government.

The first reason why progressives should support the Friedson amendment over the Ficker amendment is due to the nature of how they allow revenue increases. The Ficker amendment uses the methodology of the current charter limit on property taxes, which dates back to 1990. Currently, MoCo’s charter allows the volume of real property tax collections to rise at the rate of inflation with a few relatively minor exceptions. Friedson’s charter amendment would cap the weighted average tax rate on real property and allow collections to rise with assessments. So to compare their revenue generation over time, we need to compare the growth in price inflation (which is relied upon by the Ficker amendment) to the growth in assessments (which is relied upon by the Friedson amendment).

The chart below compares the growth in the county’s assessed value of real property to the growth in the Washington-Baltimore Consumer Price Index (CPI) from 2003 through 2017.

This period contained three distinct economic phases. The 2003-2010 period saw robust economic growth throughout the Washington region, causing assessment growth (115%) to far outpace price inflation (26%). Then came the Great Recession years of 2010 to 2013, during which assessments fell (5% over three years) while prices rose modestly (7%). In the slow recovery through 2017, assessments went up by 12% while prices rose by 4%. For the entire period, assessments increased by 129% while price inflation was 41%, suggesting that Friedson’s approach would have yielded MUCH more property tax revenue growth than Ficker’s. (The exact difference would have depended on other factors such as the application of tax credits, especially the homestead tax credit.)

That said, in four of these sixteen years – the period of the Great Recession – Ficker’s approach would have raised more than Friedson’s because real estate values tend to decline during prolonged economic downturns. That leads us to the second major difference between the Friedson and Ficker amendments. Friedson’s amendment allows a unanimous council vote to break the charter limit on property taxes, which continues current practice. Ficker’s amendment eliminates the ability of the council to break the limit, thereby instituting a hard cap on property tax collections. (There is an important exception to this in state law which will be the subject of a future post.) If property tax collections collapse during a recession, Friedson would allow the council to intervene in case of an emergency while Ficker would not. That’s another big reason why progressives should support the Friedson amendment.

Some progressives were disappointed because they wanted the council to adopt County Executive Marc Elrich’s proposed charter amendment, which would have made property tax hikes easier. Good luck getting MoCo voters whose wallets are getting slammed by COVID-19 to support anything opening the door to tax hikes. The Friedson and Ficker amendments both limit property tax increases, but since the Friedson amendment raises more money over time, it deserves the support of the left.

Update: An earlier version of this post was based on changes in the national CPI. This version is based on the Washington-Baltimore CPI. The two measures change at similar rates so the conclusions here are unaffected.

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Post Editorial: Vote Against All Charter Amendments

By Adam Pagnucco.

The Washington Post’s editorial board has weighed in on MoCo’s competing charter amendments and recommends voting against all of them. The Post wrote that both citizens’ initiatives – Robin Ficker’s amendment on taxes and the nine council district proposal – were bad ideas. But the Post also said, “Yet neither of the council’s competing proposals is preferable to the status quo.” The Post’s verdict is to vote against all of the amendments and stick with the county’s current property tax system and council structure.

You can read the Post’s editorial here.

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Ficker vs Friedson vs Elrich on Property Taxes

By Adam Pagnucco.

In an open meeting tomorrow, the county council will consider placing two charter amendments limiting property taxes on the ballot along with an amendment by Robin Ficker, which has already qualified. Let’s compare the three proposals – Ficker’s, one by Council Member Andrew Friedson and his colleagues on the council’s Government Operations Committee and one by County Executive Marc Elrich – to current law.

What would be limited?

Current charter limit: An annual growth limit is applied to the total dollar volume of real property tax collections.

Ficker: Same as current charter limit.

Friedson: A limit would be applied to the weighted average tax rate on real property.

Elrich: A limit would be applied to the real property tax rate but there is a lack of clarity on which rate. It could apply to the general property tax rate, which all county residents pay. Or it could apply to the weighted average tax rate, which includes both the general tax and many other smaller property taxes that are specific to function and/or geography. This issue needs to be decided one way or the other if this proposal appears on the ballot.

How would the limit be applied?

Current charter limit: The annual growth in the total dollar volume of real property tax collections is limited to the growth rate in the Washington-Baltimore consumer price index in the previous year. A few categories of property are exempted from this limit (notably new construction during the fiscal year).

Ficker: Same as current charter limit.

Friedson: The weighted tax rate on real property would not be allowed to increase without a unanimous vote of current council members.

Elrich: The property tax rate (whichever option is picked) would not be allowed to increase without a vote of two-thirds (six) of the council members.

Is there a waiver?

Current charter limit: Yes. The limit may be exceeded if all current council members vote to do so.

Ficker: No. The limit on property taxes is absolute (subject to state law).

Friedson: Yes. The limit may be exceeded if all current council members vote to do so (as in current law).

Elrich: Yes. The limit may be exceeded if two-thirds (six) of the council members vote to do so.

Are there disproportionate impacts on different taxpayers?

Current charter limit: No.

Ficker: No.

Friedson: No.

Elrich: Yes. The taxable value of owner-occupied residential property would be allowed to increase at a maximum rate of 3% per year. Other types of property would not be subject to this limit.

Who wins and loses under each option?

That depends on who you are and what your interest in taxes is.

People who depend on county services (other than schools) lose the most under the Ficker amendment, which ties the growth in property tax receipts to the rate of inflation. Inflation is low and might even be negative this year. If the Ficker amendment passes, it will raise the possibility that property tax collections will screech to a halt with limited ways to deal with that.

Groups favoring tax increases gain the most from the Elrich amendment because it lowers the threshold of breaking the tax limit from all current council members to two-thirds (six) of the council members.

Homeowners might benefit from the Elrich amendment, which limits annual tax bill growth on their principal residences to 3%. However, council staff pointed out that the average annual growth in residential assessments exceeded 3% only twice in the nine-year period of FY11-19.

Owners of commercial property and renters of both residential and commercial property will be disadvantaged under the Elrich amendment because they won’t get the 3% growth limit that homeowners will. Over time, the tax burden will shift away from homeowners and onto commercial entities and renters – including residential renters. This is exacerbated by the fact that the Elrich amendment makes property tax increases easier as stated above.

For stakeholders in MCPS’s operating budget, the entire discussion is irrelevant. That’s because a change to state law in 2012 allowed counties to ignore charter limits for the purpose of dedicating funding to approved budgets of local school boards. Since state law trumps county charters, no charter amendment can stop the council from passing a dedicated tax for MCPS. The Elrich administration included such a dedicated tax in its recommended FY21 budget but the council opposed it.

Ficker’s amendment looks to be headed to the ballot because it received enough petition signatures to qualify. We shall see what, if anything, the council decides to put on the ballot along with it.

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MoCo’s Most Influential, Part Six

By Adam Pagnucco.

Part One of this series laid out the rules and methodology for how we determined MoCo’s most influential people. These lists were developed by adding together the nominations of 85 people who are themselves extremely knowledgeable and influential. Today, we continue the list of the most influential non-elected people in MoCo.

12. Steve Hull, Editor-in-Chief and Publisher, Bethesda Magazine/Bethesda Beat – 9 votes

Source: While Bethesda Magazine / Bethesda Beat is not a political publication it has become one of the main local sources of news which means which stories are run and what information they present have influence. Just avoid the comment section!

AP: Let’s just state the obvious. Without Steve, MoCo would be close to a news desert. Steve would do just fine if all he had was Bethesda Magazine, but thank God he also runs Bethesda Beat. It is essential reading for anyone who cares about the community.

11. Josh Kurtz, Co-Founder and Editor, Maryland Matters – 10 votes

AP: As if being the best political writer in the state wasn’t enough, Josh had to go and found Maryland Matters, which is now the single best place to read about state politics. Political junkies all over the state are grateful!

10. Gustavo Torres, Founder and Executive Director, CASA – 11 votes

Source: Head of CASA only grows as a force to reckon with.

AP: From a church basement to the pinnacle of state and local politics, Gustavo is arguably the most powerful immigrant advocate in the entire Mid-Atlantic region. As CASA gets bigger along with the immigrant population, there is no end in sight to its influence.

9. Robin Ficker, Attorney, Former Delegate and Political Heckler – 12 votes

Source: His ballot measures have passed and upended things. He’s a fool of great consequence.

Source: Ficker knows how to craft winning ballot petitions and campaigns behind them. Ficker’s smarts are masked by his nutty personality, which causes people to underestimate him.

Source: Has accomplished more than some elected officials.

Source: May be obnoxious and annoying but his referendum drives influence the county.

Source: Crazy, but holds outsized influence.

AP: Ficker doesn’t get much love from my sources but one could make the case that he is actually the most influential non-elected person in the county. Who else has nearly single-handedly passed two charter amendments in the last twelve years with another possibly on the way? He has far more influence now than he ever did in his one term as a Delegate, and if his new anti-tax charter amendment passes, it will have a huge impact on county government for a loooooooong time.

7 (tied). Diana Conway, President, Women’s Democratic Club – 14 votes

Source: President of the Women’s Democratic Club, energizer bunny energy, often found walking the halls of Annapolis or e-mailing Councilmembers, throws a who’s who holiday party.

Source: Extremely connected, a force. Strong voice and everyone knows where she stands. Unafraid to go against the tide.

Source: Diana Conway is the president of the Women’s Democratic Club which was a pretty sleepy affair until Linda Kolko’s presidency and continuing through the presidency of Fran Rothstein. Now, they co-sponsor all sorts of events with “Do the Most Good,” and “J Walkers” and “Resist” and some others who I hope would forgive me for not having their names on the tip of my keyboard.

AP: Her nickname is Madam Kickass and that is the double truth, Ruth! Few people in the county can match Diana’s brains, tenacity and sheer capacity to do anything she decides to do. Her presidency of WDC is only the latest sign of her growing influence. PS – I feel sorry for the bureaucrats who have to answer her emails about artificial turf fields!

7 (tied). Rich Madaleno, Director, Montgomery County Office of Management and Budget and Former State Senator – 14 votes

Source: The budget whisperer. He plays a critical role in explaining how the county budget works to, well, everybody but especially Marc Elrich. Retains great Annapolis contacts.

Source: He’s become one of the county executive’s top defenders and surrogates while continuing to be an idea machine.

AP: The budget director is always important, but Rich’s experience at the state level and his status as a long-time (and effective!) former elected official make him even more influential than his position warrants. The budget crisis resulting from COVID-19 makes his role more critical than ever.

Part Seven will contain the much-awaited, soul-searing conclusion!

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Who Are These People?

By Adam Pagnucco.

They look like the folks who were elected in 2018.  Their names match the names listed on the county website.  There is no evidence of alien abductions or replacement by clones.  And yet, they don’t sound like members of the Montgomery County Council.

Who are these people?

In a scene seemingly lifted from a strange dream, a majority of the county council convened yesterday to oppose two state bills giving them additional taxing authority.  One bill would let them raise the maximum income tax rate and establish brackets instead of the current flat structure.  Another bill would let them raise property taxes on different categories of property, including homes with more than 5,000 square feet.  Council staff recommended that the council support the legislation.

Six council members said no.

Who are these people?

The six individuals (assuming they are not cloned replacements) who said no are Council Members Gabe Albornoz, Sidney Katz, Nancy Navarro, Craig Rice, Hans Riemer and Andrew “Real Deal” Friedson.  The vote of Friedson, who has emerged as the council’s leading voice of fiscal sanity, is no surprise.  But Katz, Navarro, Rice and Riemer all voted for the 8.7% property tax increase of four years ago, an event that contributed to the passage of term limits.  The increase was supposed to close MCPS’s achievement gap, but a recent Office of Legislative Oversight report showed little if any progress on that issue despite the large tax hike.

Some members of past councils might have jumped up and down to be awarded more taxing authority by the state.  The constraints on both property and income taxes are real.  State law requires that counties charge one tax rate for almost all real property (although offsetting credits can be awarded and multiple taxes might be levied).  State law also requires that counties may charge a maximum income tax rate of 3.2% using a flat structure with no brackets.  The state bills advocated by Council Member Will Jawando and Delegate Julie Palakovich Carr do not mandate county tax hikes, but they do grant enabling authority to the council to devise them.  Certain options, like establishing a new top income tax bracket, could raise millions for county government.  And yet six council members said no.

Who are these people?

Let’s let them tell us.  Here are a few quotes from the council meeting at which the state bills were considered.

Friedson: “We need to demonstrate as a county, as a county council, as political leadership at this really important time for where we move forward that we are focused relentlessly on growing the tax base and not only focused on raising the tax rates.”

Albornoz: “We all read the report recently that our colleagues in Prince George’s County have surpassed us with regards to economic development here locally and so we are now not just competing with our colleagues and friends across the river and the District of Columbia, but we’re competing with local jurisdictions right here within the State of Maryland to actively and aggressively expand economic development opportunities here within the county.”

Riemer: “My concern at the moment is there is a really significant tax proposal that is already on the table, and that is to tax services.  And that is going to have a huge impact on our county’s economy.  I feel like we ought to not confuse the conversation about that issue with additional proposals.  I think we ought to let the state leadership kind of drive the train… We ought to just hang back at this time and let the state process do its work and not complicate that matter with trying to drive funding proposals from the county level that are really reaching to the same goal.”

Rice: “I don’t think that we should be continuously going to the well locally and asking our residents individually to be paying more when we realize that as a state we know we can do it the right way.”

Riemer: “I don’t quite understand the timing of this idea and really why we’re talking about it.”

Friedson: “It is the wrong message to be sending at the worst time.”

Left unsaid but no doubt on the minds of the council was the menacing specter of political heckler Robin Ficker, who was on that very day delivering 16,000 signatures on behalf of his latest charter amendment to limit tax hikes.  Past tax hikes helped Ficker pass two charter amendments in 2008 and 2016, but his newest one, which would prohibit growth in property tax collections from exceeding the rate of inflation, is the most draconian of them all.  Ficker cites a long history of county tax hikes in justifying his quest to bring them to an end.  They were, of course, passed by prior county councils.  This time, six council members declined to throw more red meat to Ficker.

Who are these people?

Could it be that they recall the harsh lesson of four years ago and are now more careful in considering the issue of taxes?

If not, let’s call the aliens and ask what they did with our council members!

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Picture This

By Adam Pagnucco.

Picture this, dear readers: two events, both scheduled for today.

Picture 1: Robin Ficker, author of numerous charter amendments on taxes and term limits, has announced his intention to deliver 16,000 signatures in support of his latest anti-tax amendment to the county executive’s office.  Ficker needs at least 10,000 signatures to place his amendment on the ballot.  Let’s remember that no one in the history of Montgomery County has more experience in gathering signatures than Robin Ficker.

Picture 2: Just a short walk away in the county council building and almost simultaneously, County Council Member Will Jawando and Delegate Julie Palakovich Carr have announced a press conference in support of two state bills that would enable the county to levy tax hikes.  One bill would allow counties to set different property tax rates for commercial properties, industrial properties and residential properties with more than 5,000 square feet.  The other bill would allow counties to increase their maximum income tax rates from 3.2% to 3.5% and establish income tax brackets.

Picture 1 is to be expected; we have seen Ficker’s grandiose signature deliveries before.  Picture 2 is problematic for two reasons.

First, Jawando and Palakovich Carr justify their bills partly “in order to pay for the increased local share of education funding required under the Kirwan Commission.”  Counties around the state are concerned about how they might pay for any additional local obligations to schools stemming from the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations.  Those obligations are laid out in Appendix F of the Kirwan Commission bill’s fiscal note, which is reprinted below.

A careful look at the phase-in schedule shows that Montgomery County is not currently required to contribute any more to its public schools than it already has been doing until Fiscal Year 2027, which is MORE THAN SIX YEARS AWAY.  Why are these elected officials pushing tax hikes now?  One struggles to see how this is linked in any way to Kirwan.

Furthermore, even in years in which no tax hikes are levied, the Montgomery County government gets an average of more than $100 million in new revenue a year, and that excludes intergovernmental aid.  If the phase-in schedule above were altered to allow a more gradual phase-in for the county’s local obligations – say, $25-30 million a year instead of cramming it all into four years – the county might not have to raise taxes at all.  The county might have to restrain spending in other areas to allocate greater shares of new revenue to MCPS, but that would make up for the fact that local money for MCPS has been one of the slowest growing parts of the county budget for a decade.

Second, this plays directly into Ficker’s hands.  There was a time not so long ago when Ficker’s name was so radioactive due to his NBA heckling and his rampant placement of illegal campaign signs that his very association with a ballot question was enough to kill it.  Those days are gone.  In 2008, the county raised property taxes by 13%.  Voters responded months later by passing Ficker’s charter amendment requiring that nine county council members must vote in favor of any property tax increase breaking the county’s charter limit.  In 2016, the county raised property taxes by 8.7%.  Voters responded by passing Ficker’s charter amendment on term limits by a landslide.  Now, counting the bills supported by Jawando and Palakovich Carr as well as a separate bill by Council Member Evan Glass calling for new taxes on teardowns, there are three different bills pending that allow county tax increases just as Ficker is pushing for a new anti-tax charter amendment.

Ficker must be the happiest man in MoCo.

Ficker does not win passage of his charter amendments because voters love him.  He has run in almost every four-year election cycle since the 1970s, with just one victory (a 1978 Delegate race) that was reversed after a single term.  He has not come close to being elected since.  Ficker wins because he has deduced something that county politicians hate to admit, at least in public: voters are skeptical that our elected officials are capable of behaving responsibly with their tax dollars.  Indeed, the county has levied nine major tax hikes since Fiscal Year 2003, with only one (an energy tax increase in Fiscal Year 2011) occurring during a recession.  The most recent tax hike, the 8.7% property tax increase in 2016, was marketed in part as a way to close MCPS’s achievement gap.  Three years later, the council’s Office of Legislative Oversight found that the county has made little or no progress on the achievement gap despite the massive tax hike.

This kind of thing is why Ficker wins.

Let’s think of what is at stake.  In 1978, Prince George’s County passed an anti-tax charter amendment only a little more draconian than Ficker’s.  Five years later, in the wake of the devastating recession of the early 1980s and lacking an ability to raise taxes, the county had to gut services and lay off more than 500 teachers, laying the groundwork for decades of problems.  Heaven help MoCo if we proceed in that direction.

If MoCo’s elected officials want to avoid that sort of outcome, they need to behave responsibly.  Save the tax hikes for times of desperate need, like recessions.  The rest of the time, figure out how to live within your means just like your constituents do.  Above all, stop giving ammo to Ficker.

The alternative?  Picture this.  Ficker celebrates in November, bellowing in victory at the passage of yet another charter amendment.  And the county government, struggling in fiscal chains strung up by distrustful voters, becomes more vulnerable to the next recession.

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