2020 | Politics

What to know about Montgomery County’s ballot questions

Two questions propose changes to tax policy; two others address council structure

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A woman places a voting ballot in a ballot drop box outside of the Gaithersburg Activity Center on June 2 during the primary election.

File photo

Montgomery County voters will decide this year on proposed changes on taxation and the structure of the County Council.

The general election ballot will have four questions — two on tax policy and two concerning seats on the council.

The questions were placed on the ballot either by petitions or the council’s own proposals.

The general election is on Nov. 3. In-person voting will be available at 39 polling places. Early voting will be held from Oct. 26 to Nov. 2 at 11 sites.

Election officials are encouraging everyone who can vote by mail or by dropping off a ballot at one of 50 collection sites to do so. The county has answers to other election questions online.

Tax cap

The first set of questions — A and B — recommend changes to tax policy and limits on revenue.

The county’s tax revenue is derived from several types of property.

Question A, proposed by the County Council, suggests removing a cap that limits how much the county’s property tax revenue can increase in a single year. The proposal would require all nine council members to vote in favor to approve an increase in the tax rate.

Currently, the council is only allowed to increase its revenue by a percentage equal to the Consumer Price Index in the Washington region for a 12-month period ending on Nov. 30 of the preceding year.

The cap was 1.27% for the current fiscal year. It is estimated to be 0.6% in the next fiscal year. Without a cap, the increase could be higher than the CPI.

Question B, placed on the ballot through a petition drive by county resident Robin Ficker, calls for limiting tax increases. It would prohibit the council from increasing property tax revenue greater than a percentage equal to the CPI in the Washington region for a 12-month period ending on Nov. 30 of the preceding year.

Ficker’s proposal would eliminate the possibility of a greater increase, even by a unanimous vote, under any circumstances.

If both questions pass, neither would move forward because they’re conflicting initiatives, according to Rich Madaleno, the county’s chief administrative officer. Madaleno was confirmed as CAO last week and previously served as the county’s budget director.

Passing Question B would put the county into a “fiscal death spiral,” he said.

“It would mandate annual reductions that would just drain resources from our largest priorities and our reputation of being a well-managed county that we have on Wall Street with the ability to deal with whatever problems come our way would come into question,” Madaleno said.

Ficker’s proposal would cause the county to lose its AAA bond rating and drive up the cost of borrowing, Madaleno said.

“We would be caught in the bind of having to pay more for new investments while having less money available to make those payments,” he said. “It is the type of short-sighted, gimmicky initiative that has led to the decline of communities across the country.”

Madaleno said he was not concerned that Ficker’s petition gathered enough signatures to be placed on the ballot. The requirement is at least 10,000 certified signatures.

“It is an obscenely low threshold to get a ballot initiative put before the voters in the state of Maryland,” Madaleno said. “The state constitution says it takes 20% of the voters of a community, but no more than 10,000 [signatures in counties with charters]. So it takes less than 1% of the population to get — or roughly 2% of the voters to get a petition on the ballot. There’s almost nothing like it anywhere.”

Although the question is on the ballot, Madaleno said he’s not worried voters will choose Ficker’s proposal, especially because of recent groups that have started political committees to campaign against it.

One group is promoting a “Vote No On B & D” campaign. It is headed by former County Executive Ike Leggett, former U.S. Rep. Connie Morella, businessman and former county executive candidate David Blair, and AQUAS Inc. CEO Carmen Ortiz Larsen.

The group is not taking a stance on Questions A and C.

If Question B passed, Madaleno said he didn’t know how the county would put together its budget next year, especially with the financial costs of responding and recording from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I have faith that the voters of Montgomery County will see through another one of Ficker’s gimmicks and will say no to inserting a ticking time bomb into our budget,” Madaleno said.

But Ficker said the “ticking time bomb” is the council’s and County Executive Marc Elrich’s “overspending.”

“They can’t control their spending. … They practice shut-dow n politics and tax-increase politics,” Ficker said in an interview Friday afternoon. “When you’re shut down, you’re not getting your revenues. The ticking time bomb is that they’ve locked down the county.”

Ficker said his proposal is simply to limit tax increases.

“We want to limit their ability. We never, ever — during our lifetime or our children’s lifetime — want another 9% tax increase,” he said, referring to a 2016 tax hike.

The idea that the council will push for a similar tax hike is not a “gimmick,” he said, responding to Madaleno’s comment. “It’s devastation to the family budget. … It’s devastation to our county. It’s absolute devastation.”

The county can’t tax its way out of the pandemic, he said, and the council and county executive’s proposal is “pretty sneak y” because it’s a “double-whammy tax increase.”

“Question A is a built-in, backdoor tax increase and it also allows the council and executive to give us a tax increase during a pandemic,” Ficker said. “With the huge deficit they’ve rung up, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.”

Ficker said he wasn’t concerned about the campaigns that have popped up against his proposal.

“Here you have a few leaders who are out of touch, don’t worry about others paying tax increases ,” he said. “I know what the average person on the street thinks because I collected most of those signatures [for the petition].”

Questions regarding the council structure

Voters also will face two proposals — one submitted by the council and one placed on the ballot by a resident group’s petition — that could change the County Council structure.

The council currently has nine council members — five elected by districts and four elected at-large, representing the entire county.

Question C — proposed by the council and spearheaded by Council Member Evan Glass — suggests expanding the council from nine seats to 11 seats. Seven members would be elected by district. The other four seats would remain at large.

Question D — placed on the ballot by petition by Nine Districts for MoCo, a local group of residents — proposes to change the four at-large seats into seats elected by district. The council would stay at nine seats, with all nine elected by districts.

Glass said in an interview Monday afternoon that the council’s current structure was created 30 years ago and the county’s population has since increased by about 50%.

“I think now is the time to update and modernize our council structure to accommodate the incredible population growth that is required for a truly representative government,” he said.

Glass said he has supported adding council seats since before he became a council member.

“I had talked about the proposal with many people — publicly and privately — and when we knew that there was going to be a public debate about the council structure, many of us viewed this as an opportunity to have a real conversation about how the council should be made up,” he said.

Glass said he wasn’t sure if the groups created to campaign against Question D will help, but he respects the concerns that they have raised.

“Former County Executive Ike Leggett and former Congresswoman Connie Morella are both in agreement that nine districts will lead to parochialism and infighting on the council,” he said. “Don’t take my word for it. Take their bipartisan word for it. People are also concerned about diversity on the council. This is the most socially diverse council in our history.”

The council has two Black members (Will Jawando and Craig Rice), two Latino members (Gabe Albornoz and Nancy Navarro), and its first openly LGBTQ member (Glass).

“Three of those five are at-large, which truly represents the beautiful diversity that we have in Montgomery County,” Glass said.

On Sept. 21, a group called Residents for More Representation announced its formation and opposition against Question D. The group is supporting Question C.

Marilyn Balcombe, president and CEO of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce, and Michelle Graham, a 40-year county resident, are co-chairing the new committee.

Kimblyn Persaud, chair of Nine Districts for MoCo, said in an interview Friday afternoon that the groups campaigning against Question D are an example of the “Democratic machine in play.” But the “Vote No On B & D” campaign is headed by bipartisan leaders – Leggitt, a Democrat, and Morella, a Republican.

“They’re going to circle their wagons because they don’t want change,” she said. “The real question is, what are they afraid of? Why don’t they want everyone in this county to have a voice? People need to look at that and ask why.”

Persaud said people in the opposition groups “have skin in the game” because some might be looking to run for office in 2022. (Balcombe ran for an at-large seat on the County Council in 2018.)

“They understand that the government doesn’t work and they’re OK with it,” Persaud said. “They’re benefiting from a dysfunctional at-large structure. … The reality is this is a David-and-Goliath situation. You have the Democratic machine squashing the will of the people. There’s nothing you can do against the machine but to fight it.”

Glass said Question C is about change, as well.

“Question C is about positive change. It will allow for greater representation without diluting residents’ voices,” he said. “Question D reduces everyone’s ability to vote for five council members down to one. Question C allows everyone to vote for five council members and increased representation.”

Persaud said Nine Districts for MoCo has around 250 volunteers and plans to continue to knock on doors and educate residents on their effort.

“We don’t have as much money or as much fire power or star power as the Democratic machine,” she said. “But we’re going to give it our all.”

In June, the county’s Charter Review Commission recommended no changes to the council’s structure after considering a nine-district council. It voted 5-4 against recommending the change to nine district seats.

State ballot questions

Residents will also be able to cast a vote on the state budget process and on sports and event wagering in the state.

Question 1 would allow the Maryland General Assembly to move money around the governor’s proposed operating budget and add to certain expenditures, as long as the overall amount of the proposed budget does not increase.

Currently, the legislature can make cuts to the budget, but may not add or reapportion any of the proposed expenditures.

Question 2 would legalize betting on sports and other events in Maryland, with proceeds going toward education funding.

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.