This fall, voters in Montgomery County are weighing in on four important measures on the ballot that could have far-reaching implications for the way Maryland’s most populous county is run for years into the future.
The four ballot questions in Montgomery County offer up competing plans for two key issues: calculating property taxes and the structure of the county council.
“Folks are understandably focused at the national level, but we have a critical election here in Montgomery County that will determine what the next 30 years are going to look like,” said Montgomery County Council member Andrew Friedson, who has spearheaded one of the ballot measures that would change the method the county uses to collect property taxes.
Question A: Cap property tax rate, not overall revenue
Question A — the measure supported by Friedson, his colleagues on the Montgomery County Council and other county leaders — would overhaul the current system for limiting property tax increases in the county.
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The current system doesn’t cap tax rates directly but does impose a cap on the overall amount of property tax revenue the county can take in. That cap is tied to inflation. Council members can exceed the cap but doing so also requires a unanimous vote by all nine council members.
Proponents of Question A say the current system holds the county back, since it limits the overall amount of tax revenue the county brings in even if property values rise or the county’s tax base expands.
Rather than a cap on overall revenue, under Question A, the actual property tax rate would be limited to the previous year’s rate unless all nine members of the county council voted to increase it.
“Question A is the answer to our county’s broken property tax system,” said Friedson, who represents District 1 on the Montgomery County Council and also sits on the council’s economic development and fiscal policy committees. “It sets a consistent rate each year that allows us to fund schools, libraries and parks. It’s really simple: Your property tax rate will remain the same unless nine members of the council unanimously vote to change it.”
Under the current system, the council has to set the property tax rate each year to make sure that the county doesn’t exceed the overall revenue cap.
Over the years, the property tax rate in Montgomery County — calculated per $100 of a property’s assessed value — has fluctuated. For the current fiscal year, the rate was set just shy of 98 cents per $100 of assessed value — at $0.9785. In 2017 and 2018, the rate was just over a dollar — $1.0264 and $1.0012, respectively.
Friedson said the current system, where rates are set each year to comply with the revenue cap, is too complicated, likening it to a game of “Jeopardy.”
“Having a tax system that requires a Ph.D. in economic theory, that has a complicated formula that nobody really understands … isn’t a rational or reasonable way to do tax policy. We should be better than that in Montgomery County.”
The current system dates to 1990, when voters approved a ballot measure limiting overall revenues, but it’s now out-of-step with how most other jurisdictions operate, officials say.
Question A “gets us out of the shackle where we’re limited to the revenues we raised last year, which ironically doesn’t limit any individuals’ tax increases,” County Executive Marc Elrich said during an online news briefing in September.
Question B: Prevent all increases beyond inflation
Question B would stick with the current system for capping property tax revenue but would make it impossible for the county council to approve any increases above the rate of inflation.
Attorney Robin Ficker, who unsuccessfully ran for county executive on the Republican ticket in 2018, led the citizen’s initiative that resulted in the measure making it to the ballot.
“Question B limits property tax revenue increases to the rate of inflation,” Ficker told WTOP. “Question A allows the council and Mr. Elrich to increase property taxes as much as they want.”
Looming large in Ficker’s campaign to further limit property tax increases is the move four years ago by the county council to approve a county budget that included an 8.7% hike in property tax revenue, in part to provide more funding for schools.
Given the expected budget shortfall to county coffers because of the coronavirus pandemic, Ficker said he believes another tax increase is all but inevitable if voters don’t approve Question B.
“They have a huge deficit, and they’re going to make it up by treating the voters as an ATM and giving us another very large tax increase next year,” Ficker said, referring to the county council. “That’s their whole purpose in opposing B and supporting A.”
Ficker said the requirement for a unanimous vote by the council — a requirement that was actually created via a 2008 ballot question, also championed by Ficker — isn’t much of a check on property tax revenue increases, because all nine members of the council are Democrats who he claims are all ideologically similar.
“They have it, nine seats locked in, and every one of them goes along to get along,” he said.
Disagreements over A and B
Ficker’s proposal has sparked fierce opposition from county leaders.
Friedson, who’s leading the push for Question A, said the rival measure proposed by Ficker, “would be a disaster” for the county.
He said Ficker’s plan “turns a bad property tax policy into a potentially catastrophic one, which would eliminate many aspects of our ability to fund school and transportation needs, respond to a crisis like the one we’re in with COVID-19 — and it’s just not a thoughtful, reasonable and rational way to do tax policy. It’s fiscal insanity; it’s not fiscal responsibility.”
A broad coalition of groups going under the name “Montgomery Neighbors Against B” have lined up in opposition to Ficker’s proposal, arguing Question B’s inflexible cap on property tax revenue would “strangle essential services, from firehouses to public health.”
Ficker’s response: “Question B doesn’t cut anything — it limits increases to the rate of inflation. So these folks who are opposing Question B are not telling the truth. Nothing’s being strangled. Nothing’s being cut. We’re just limiting increases, and they need to get that straight instead of telling falsehoods.”
The Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, which is known for its support of business-friendly policies, supports Question A and opposes Question B, saying Ficker’s proposal would compromise the county’s Triple-A bond rating, which would increase borrowing costs.
Ficker called that contention “garbage,” adding, “What is threatening the county’s Triple-A bond rating is (the council’s) overspending.”
Ficker’s proposal has garnered fewer endorsements than the county-backed Question A, but it does have the support of the Montgomery County Republican Party, which called on voters to reject Question A and support Question B to “stop unnecessary new property tax increases.”
Democrats far outnumber Republicans in the county, but despite its reputation as a liberal enclave, Ficker said 60% of the more than 15,000 county voters who signed the petition to get Question B on the ballot this fall were Democrats. “And we checked every single name,” he said.
Ficker also has a winning track record when it comes to ballot questions. In addition to 2008’s so-called “Ficker Rule,” which required a unanimous council vote to raise property tax revenue above the rate of inflation, he also successfully shepherded the 2016 effort on term limits in which county voters overwhelmingly approved.
Ficker said he is similarly optimistic this go-round.
Question C: Add 2 seats to the county council
The two remaining ballot questions facing Montgomery County voters are competing proposals to shake up the structure of the county council.
Under Question C, the number of district seats on the council would grow from five to seven, and the number of at-large seats would remain unchanged at four. That would expand the overall size of the council from nine members to 11 members.
Montgomery County, which is Maryland’s largest county by population, has had its current structure — five members representing geographic districts and four at-large seats — since 1990.
Evan Glass, one of the council’s four current at-large members who has spearheaded the measure, said Question C is necessary because of how much the county has grown over the past few decades.
“Montgomery County has grown by leaps and bounds over the last 30 years, and our population has actually increased 50% in the time that we’ve had the current council … I think now is the time for us to increase our representation, increase our democracy and increase the size of the council,” Glass said.
At nine members, the Montgomery County Council has fewer members than the D.C. Council, which has 13 members, and the Prince George’s County Council, which has 11 — even though Montgomery County’s population is larger than those jurisdictions.
Question D: Get rid of at-large seats
Competing Question D, which is supported by a citizens initiative, proposes even more dramatic changes to the council. Question D would do away with all of the council’s at-large seats in favor of nine single-member districts.
Kimblyn Persaud, the chair of the group “9 Districts for MoCo,” said the current council structure privileges the voices and the votes of residents who live “down county” — south of Rockville to the D.C. line.
Getting rid of the at-large seats would lead to districts that are smaller and “more cohesive,” Persaud said, “with the ability for regular Joe Blows to be able to speak and have their voices heard in Rockville,” where the county council sits.
Residents who live in the northern parts of Montgomery County have long complained that “up-county” residents are not adequately represented on the council.
“All of the money, all of the advocating, goes towards the down-county area, and up-county is getting the shaft,” Persaud said. “With nine districts, all the other regions would have someone who would represent them, so everybody in Montgomery County will have a voice.”
Persaud, who lives in Wheaton and calls herself a “reluctant community activist,” said the at-large seats nature of the council contributes to the unequal representation.
Most of the council’s current nine members live down-county, including all of the council’s at-large members, whose residences are clustered in the Silver Spring-Takoma Park area.
She said up-county residents need members on the council who understand the issues that matter to them. “I know when I needed help for anything, when I’ve gone to an at-large member, I have received nothing … I don’t ever receive a call back,” Persaud said.
For his part, Glass defended the at-large seats, saying a mixed structure of district and at-large seats provides citizens with additional council members to turn to for help besides only the council member who represents their district.
“As an at-large member myself, I put a lot of miles on my car and spend a lot of time on public transportation as well, getting to every part of the county to see the communities, walk the neighborhoods and talk with people …. as do my at-large colleagues as well,” Glass said.
Would Question D limit residents’ voting power?
Opponents of Question D say doing away with the at-large seats would diminish the voting power of Montgomery County residents.
With at-large seats, each voter in the county has the opportunity to weigh in on their choice for five seats on the council: their individual district as well as the four at-large seats.
“If we went to an all-district system, residents would be left with only having one council member whom they could call for filling a pothole, fixing a streetlight or lobbying support against legislation,” Glass said.
He called his proposal, Question C, “the best of both worlds,” because it would still allow voters to weigh in on multiple seats as well as increasing the size of the council.
Persaud and other advocates of the all-district option disagree that the at-large system amplifies residents’ voting power.
“The reality is we don’t have five people sitting at the table,” Persaud said. In part because of higher voter turnout down-county, “We have a small group of voters dictating to the whole county who our at-large members will be,” she said.
Glass’ Question C is supported by a broad swath of progressive and Democratic groups, including Jews United for Justice, the Association of Black Democrats, the Latino Democratic Club of Montgomery County, as well as the county’s chapter of the Democratic Party.
Persaud’s group “9 Districts for MoCo,” has received contributions from the labor union MCGEO and big developers, according to an analysis of campaign contributions by the Seventh State blog. In addition to Persaud’s group, Question D has also been endorsed by the Montgomery County GOP, which said nine single-member districts would provide “fair representation” to all areas of the county.
Persaud, who identifies herself as a Democrat, said she blames the “Democratic machine” for opposition to Question D.
Former County Executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett, who was also a longtime council member, has come out of retirement to oppose the proposed changes to the council (along with Question B).
He has suggested a council made up of nine single members would be beset by parochialism.
“In single-member districts, the politics and parochialism becomes so, so adverse to a good local governance that it’s difficult to have the kind of effectiveness that you want,” Leggett said in an interview with Montgomery County Media.
Costs of Question C under scrutiny
For their part, Persaud and other opponents of Question C also question the costs of adding two more council seats. Their proposal wouldn’t cost anything since it wouldn’t add districts, only take the at-large seats and convert them into district seats.
Overall, the cost of adding two more seats to the council would be at least $1.08 million. Each council office budget runs $540,000, which includes a $140,000 salary for council members, according to council spokeswoman Sonya Healy.
“The last thing we need to be doing is adding to our budget,” Persaud said, arguing that before the council adds to its own budget, it should increase funding for schools.
Glass said the additional costs of adding seats under Question C is an additional investment in Montgomery County’s democracy.
Voters have the option of voting “no” on both Questions C and D, and the council structure would remain as it is now.
In 2004, when a measure nearly identical to Question D seeking to do away with at-large districts was on the ballot, voters handily rejected it.
The Charter Review Commission, a nine-member body tasked with studying proposed changes to the county’s charter, has studied the issue several times over the years, most recently earlier this year. The commission held a series of public meetings on the matters and voted narrowly, 5-4, against recommending any changes, concluding voters were best served by the current structure.