Montgomery County Executive candidates Marc Elrich, George Leventhal, Roger Berliner and Robin Ficker, reaching in his pocket, at the forum at the Potomac Community Center Saturday Credit: Andrew Metcalf

The three Democratic Montgomery County Council members running for county executive got their first formal shot Saturday at a version of a question they’ll face again over the next nine months: Why did you vote to raise the property tax and do you think the current rate is appropriate?

At the Montgomery County Muslim Council’s political forum in Potomac, term-limited Council members Roger Berliner, Marc Elrich and George Leventhal did their best to parry the question, which the moderator said “was on the mind of most residents.”

All three were part of the unanimous 2016 council vote that raised property taxes 8.7 percent.

Del. Bill Frick (D-Bethesda), who jumped into the race last week, did not participate in the forum because he said he had a family commitment. About 50 people attended. It was the first forum for county executive candidates of the 2018 campaign season.

Elrich said the tax raise was needed to address the persistent achievement gap in Montgomery County Public Schools, in which white and Asian students regularly outperform black and Hispanic students. He said the additional funds from the tax increase will help pay for schools, parks and infrastructure that make people and businesses want to settle in the county.

The property tax increase cost the average homeowner in the county about $326 more per year and helped balance the $5.3 billion operating budget approved in 2016.

“People come to Montgomery County because of the schools,” Elrich said. “The steps we took last year were largely to put funding into schools to add building capacity because our classrooms are overcrowded and also to deal with programming because we were asking them to bring forward programs that dealt with the achievement gap.”

He added that he wouldn’t vow not to raise taxes in the future.

“We shouldn’t handicap ourselves to say we’re not going to raise taxes if we have to,” Elrich said. “I’ve been a big proponent of making developers pay a larger share of infrastructure costs because what’s not paid for by them ends up being paid for by Montgomery County taxpayers or, in the worst case, not paid for and not done at all.”

Leventhal said the county’s Board of Education came to the council in 2016 with an enormous request and he acknowledged it was an unpopular decision to raise taxes.

“I think it was the right decision,” he said. “We invested in our schools, we have hired more teachers and we reduced classroom size. We made sure the resources went to those purposes.”

He said the county must continue to maintain its school system and quality of life in order to attract businesses.

“We don’t want to raise taxes again, I certainly don’t want to,” Leventhal said. “But I stand by the tough decision we made in 2016 because we’ve got to maintain the quality of our school system.”

He added that at a council forum with major employers in Montgomery County, the employers sought the county government’s help in attracting talented employees and creating exciting urban communities, but did not mention tax rates.

Leventhal said the county should expand its tax base by attracting new employers and not by increasing tax rates.

Berliner said council members believed raising the tax rate was “absolutely necessary” even though they knew it would be unpopular.

He noted that the school board requested $90 million over “maintenance of effort,” which is the minimum funding level for school systems mandated under state law.

He said the council demanded that the school system reduce class size and work on the achievement gap with the additional funding.

“We used this opportunity in an unprecedented way to say, ‘School system, you need to do your business differently,’” Berliner said. “And they did.”

He added that he didn’t raise taxes while serving as council president this year and has worked to improve government efficiency.

“That is the approach I will take as county executive,” Berliner said.

Republican Robin Ficker took the question as an opportunity to criticize the council members for their vote and said he wouldn’t raise taxes if elected.

He asked the audience to remember one thing from the forum, “Robin protects Muslim pocketbooks.”

He noted that he led the petition drive to put on the ballot the successful 2008 question that changed the charter to require a unanimous vote by the council to approve a tax increase more than the rate of inflation. Throughout the forum, he promoted his successful effort to add term limits to the ballot in November, which voters approved with about 70 percent of the vote.

He said his tax referendum kept the county from significantly raising taxes for about seven years.

“Then last year, they passed—the guys sitting behind me—passed a 9 percent property tax increase,” Ficker said. “That’s excessive.”

He said term limits was the payback for the tax-rate increase.

Ficker, who has run unsuccessfully for six local races since 2006, has an uphill battle to win the election. Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 3-to-1 in Montgomery County.

Ficker is a Boyds resident, Berliner lives in North Bethesda and Elrich and Leventhal are both Takoma Park residents.

The candidates also weighed in on a number of questions written by audience members on issues that many Muslims face.

All four executive candidates in attendance said they’d work with schools to eliminate bullying. The three Democratic council members said they’d make sure racial profiling and other forms are discrimination do not take place in the county.

Ficker said he’s long fought discrimination as a criminal defense attorney. If elected, he said, he’d host office hours on the first floor of the County Executive Building in Rockville at 7 a.m. every Monday morning, so he could hear residents’ concerns directly.

Another proposal by Ficker was to require county students to walk or run a mile every day. He called it part of “Robin’s too busy to bully” program.

The entire question-and-answer session with the county executive candidates lasted a little over an hour. Congressional candidates also spoke during the event.

Additional county executive forums and debates are scheduled in November, March and April. Bethesda Beat and the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce are scheduled to host a free county executive debate Nov. 15 at the National 4-H Conference Center in Chevy Chase.

The primary is June 26.