Robin Ficker, collecting signatures for a ballot measure during the 2019 Taste of Bethesda festival in October Credit: Photo by Andrew Schotz

Former county executive candidate Robin Ficker said he’s making headway on a ballot initiative to cap property-tax increases in Montgomery County.

The initiative — which Ficker announced in November 2018 after an unsuccessful campaign for Montgomery County executive — would prohibit the county from raising property taxes above the rate of inflation.

Ficker said last week that he’s already collected 16,000 signatures for the charter amendment, which he aims to add to the 2020 ballot.

Ballot measures require 10,000 verified signatures from registered voters. Ficker said he’s currently working to authenticate them all before submitting the initiative to the Montgomery County Board of Elections. The deadline for submitting signatures for a 2020 county charter amendment is July 27.

“I can tell you that support runs across racial lines and income levels,” he said. “It really runs across Montgomery County. People do not want another 9% increase, and they think the county should bring in some more business instead of punishing taxpayers.”

Local property taxes have attracted the ire of some voters since the county approved a 9% increase in 2016 — the biggest jump in seven years. It was accompanied by a rise in transfer taxes that equated to a $455 increase in the cost of buying or selling a $500,000 home.

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The county’s tax increase was far higher than the rate of inflation that year, Ficker said, which he described as “treating the good people of Montgomery County like an ATM.”

This is Ficker’s eleventh attempt to put a property-tax initiative on the ballot since 1976, when he circulated a petition to require voter approval of rate hikes.

Voters did not approve that first measure. But Ficker said he’s seen a steady increase in support for property-tax measures as rates in the county continue to rise.

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In 2008, he successfully introduced a charter amendment that limited property-tax increases to the rate of inflation unless the County Council unanimously voted on the change. His newest initiative would amend that requirement, capping increases even with council approval.

“Having collected these signatures, I can tell you that rank-and-file residents feel a lot differently than our leaders in Rockville,” Ficker said, referring to the location of the council and county executive office buildings. “I’m trying to stand up for people in the county who don’t have unlimited family budgets that can support these kinds of tax increases.”

Ficker, a Republican attorney, has become well-known for his local ballot initiatives. In 2016 — seven months after the council approved the 9% property-tax increase — he successfully introduced a charter amendment that, after its approval by voters, limited council members and the county executive to three consecutive terms in office.

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It was one of 20 different charter amendments Ficker has successfully added to the Montgomery County ballot since 1974. Five have passed, including a measure that forbids the county from operating or constructing landfills in residential zones.

Ficker served one term as a state delegate for District 15 in northern Montgomery County. He has run in 19 other county, state or federal elections — most recently for county executive.

Ficker finished third in the 2018 general election, after Democrat Marc Elrich and independent Nancy Floreen.

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Ficker said he has no plans to run for office in 2020, but will continue to introduce ballot initiatives to address what he considers ongoing problems in the county. Property-tax increases have become a particular concern to him, he added, as the county struggles with economic growth.

Montgomery County could face a budget shortfall of $99.8 million in fiscal year 2021 based on mid-year financial projections. Despite the 2016 increase, property-tax revenues are stagnating, driven largely by a lower-than-expected inflation rate.

Ficker’s amendment would significantly impede the county’s ability to collect more in tax revenue. When property-tax rates increased by 9% in 2016, the rate of inflation only grew roughly 1.3%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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