Citing a 2016 property tax hike of almost 9%, Republican activist and repeat candidate Robin Ficker wants Montgomery County voters to limit future increases to the rate of inflation.
He succeeded in imposing term limits on elected officials in 2016, and this year he wants Montgomery County voters to limit how much elected officials can raise property taxes on a yearly basis.
On Monday, Republican activist and candidate many-times-over Robin Ficker submitted more than 16,000 signatures from county voters for a petition he hopes will trigger a ballot measure in November. If passed, it would limit property tax increases to the rate of inflation.
Ficker has proposed dozens of ballot measures over the years, and he says this one was inspired by an 8.7% property tax increase in 2016 across Montgomery County. Elected officials said the money was needed to fund schools, but Ficker says the tax hike was roughly five times the rate of inflation that year.
"We have a group of tax-increase specialists in the county government. They're out of touch with the average citizen in Montgomery County. We are not ATMs, County Council and County Executive. We have family budgets, we have to meet our expenditures, we can't spend more than we take in," he said.
Ficker's focus on property taxes continues what has been a decades-long attempt to shape how much elected officials can pull from homeowners who already kick in almost half of the $4 billion in annual revenue Montgomery County takes in. In 2008, he pushed a ballot measure that requires a unanimous vote on the County Council for any property-tax increase higher than the rate of inflation; it passed by just over 5,000 votes. The rate of inflation for 2020 is 2.5%.
County Executive Marc Elrich did not respond to a request for comment on Monday, though he has pledged not to raise property taxes during his term in office. But the new ballot measure has drawn opposition from some of the county's other elected officials, who object to having their hands when it comes to budgeting — especially with possible budget shortfalls in the future and possible expenditure hikes over the next decade related to a statewide plan to improve schools.
"People love our community. They get great value out of the schools and libraries and trails, all things that take money to maintain. You sent us here to do the job and we need the tools to do that job, and this would limit that ability," said At-Large Council member Will Jawando. "If we didn't have the ability to do anything with property taxes other than just have a pro forma inflationary increase, that would not serve residents well when there are needs here. I think it's shortsighted."
Jawando says Prince George's County has had a longstanding cap on tax increases, which has forced elected officials to make difficult decisions during economic slumps. He also says he asked lawmakers in Annapolis to take up a bill that would give counties across Maryland more flexibility in assessing different tax rates based on property types and sizes, which he calls an issue of "fairness." Jawando says it could lead to property tax decreases for most homeowners in Montgomery County, while those occupying homes larger than 5,000 square feet could pay more.
But Adam Pagnucco, a former Council staffer and current political analyst, wrote on the Seventh State blog on Monday that the county's elected officials' past decisions on taxes had in part helped Ficker succeed in getting ballot measures passed and that they need to tread carefully when it comes to spending.
"Ficker does not win passage of his charter amendments because voters love him," he wrote, noting that the Republican has lost almost every run for elected office he's jumped into. "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."
As he prepared to deliver the signatures to Elrich's office on Monday, Ficker expressed optimism that if the measure appears on November's ballot — which only requires that the election board verify that he collected 10,000 valid signatures — it will pass.
"It transcends county lines, it transcends party lines, it transcends lines of where people were born or what part of the county they live in," he said. "There's a great cross-section of county voters that support limiting property taxes and are opposed to ever having another 9% increase."