Montgomery County Council Office Building by Dan Reed.

On November 3, four county-level ballot questions will determine the future of Montgomery County’s funding and representation. Whether enacted — or prohibited — the measures will shape the county for years to come.

Questions A and B are about tax revenues and how they could be used

Ballot Questions A and B will impact county revenue and the ability to respond to any number of crises – including COVID-19, and its disproportionate impact on low-income and communities of color. Ballot Question B, introduced by Robin Ficker, who ran as a Republican for candidate for county executive in 2018 and is currently running for governor, would amend the county charter to permanently prohibit any increase in property tax revenue that would exceed the rate of inflation. This could have a large impact on county taxes and revenues.

Currently, the county council must vote unanimously in order to not only raise the property tax rate, but to levy a tax rate that will “produce total revenue that exceeds the total revenue produced by the tax on real property in the preceding fiscal year, plus a percentage of the previous year’s property tax revenues that equals any increase in the Consumer Price Index.” The limit, however, does not apply to newly constructed property.

When Ficker first introduced Ballot Question B, he did so in order to ‘send a message to the County Council’ that the increases in the property tax rate were ‘unacceptable’. Ficker called out in particular a 9% percent increase in 2016. When his petition to place a referendum question on the ballot reached the necessary 10,000 signatures, Ficker said that “We never again want a tax increase.”

While supporters of Question B see a county that increases taxes too often, Montgomery County has the lowest property tax rate of any comparable jurisdiction in the state (See figure 1.1 below). The peaks and valleys on Montgomery County’s yellow line in the graph below illustrate the impacts of a cap tied to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) that has forced decreases in collectable revenue: to compensate, the rate has been increased to meet funding for public services — which, unlike the tax revenues, are not tied to inflation. In addition to the current pandemic response, tax revenue goes to fund education, transportation, affordable housing initiatives, public safety, homeless outreach, and any number of other critical areas that could suffer with no ability to add revenue in the future even with unanimous council approval.

Figure 1.1: Overview of Maryland local government's finance and demographic Information. Information compiled by OMB.  Image by the Maryland Department of Legislative Services.

County leadership has expressed concerns in addition to Montgomery County’s hindered response to COVID-19. Then acting County Chief Administrative Officer Rich Madaleno expressed in a recent Town Hall hosted by Jews United for Justice a concern that the lack of stable, predictable revenue and taxation flexibility could imperil Montgomery County’s AAA bond rating, thereby increasing future borrowing costs.

Voters are also presented with an alternative question about the budget. Ballot Question A, introduced by the Montgomery County Council, would remove the current cap tying property tax revenue to inflation and replaces it with a cap on the property tax rate itself. The measure would allow the County, only if unanimously agreed-upon by the council, to raise the tax rate collected from property taxes to fund needed services. While the continued need of a unanimous vote is less than ideal, this change from a tax “revenue” cap to a tax “rate” cap allows more flexibility and predictability in county revenue, particularly when compared to a competing measure that would never allow for an increase of any kind.

As previously mentioned, this was done multiple times since the 2000s, most recently in 2016 (this corresponds to the ‘peaks’ in figure 1.1 above). Question A, in contrast to Question B, allows Montgomery County to benefit from growth in assets while redistributing revenue towards vital county services.

Ballot questions C and D will determine County Council representation

Meanwhile, Ballot Questions C and D would determine the structure of the Montgomery County Council. The organization “Nine Districts for Moco” petitioned for the introduction of Ballot Question D, which would eliminate the four at-large county council members and turn the County Council into a body of representatives, that would each represent one district in the County.

A countermeasure, Question C, would keep the at-large members but would add in two new districts, raising the number of district Councilmembers from five to seven.

Nine Districts advocates argue that seven of the nine members of the council live South and East of North Bethesda and that “County legislative decisions are made by representatives from a small area called the ‘down county crescent’ that largely includes Silver Spring and Takoma Park.” However, figure 2.1 below shows a map of the current distribution of the five districts of the County Council, which are not concentrated in the Silver Spring-Takoma Park “crescent” and are each represented by one geographically specific Councilmember. In addition, the four at-large members represent the County as a whole and are voted in by all members of the County.

Figure 2.1: Map of the current Montgomery County Council Districts. Image from the  Montgomery County Board of Elections.

Population growth is a main reason cited for the need to change the County Council with advocates noting that Montgomery County’s population has grown from around 700,000 to approximately 1.1 million since 1990. District specific council members do represent a higher than average number of constituents, though this effect is somewhat eased by the presence of at-large members. It is important to note that ballot measure D would change the distribution of councilmembers, not add to them, therefore it would not actually decrease the representation burden on each councilmember.

As part of a series of pieces on the C versus D debate at the Seventh State blog, Adam Pagnucco outlined that county residents have .9 legislators per 100,000 residents, compared to the 1.4 average in the Baltimore-Washington region. Similarly, the post notes that Montgomery County has the highest number of residents per legislative district in the region. That said, the removal of at-large representatives could make it harder to tackle issues such as transportation and housing affordability, where zoning and construction decisions would cross district lines, and where at-large members are currently held accountable to all Montgomery County voters. This raises the risk of parochialism and divisiveness between districts, as each councilmember would only be held electorally accountable to a physical portion of the county, while currently almost half of the council has to answer to all voters from all districts.

Perhaps most importantly, the share of representatives each voter elects decreases from five representatives (four at-large and one District Councilmembers) to one representative (one District Councilmember). Charter Review Commission Chair George Margolies noted that Ballot Question D would effectively mean that each county resident would only elect one of nine council members, rather than the current five of nine, arguing that “Being able to vote for only one of nine council members, instead of a majority of the council, would significantly diminish citizens’ voices.”

Under Ballot Question C, which was proposed by the County Council, seven council members would be elected from geographically distinct districts — up from five — thereby lowering the number of residents each district member would represent, while keeping the hybrid Council structure that includes at-large members. Under Ballot Question C, voters would vote for 5 of 11 councilmembers in the County.

In sum: Ballot Questions A and B will determine the future of County revenue, and its ability to respond to crises, and to provide flexibility for future fiscal decisions. Question A would remove an artificial cap on property tax revenue, while Question B would permanently tie down revenue to the inflation rate with no ability for the council to override this cap, even with unanimous approval.

Questions C and D will determine the structure for the County Council going forward. Question C will add two new district seats while retaining at-large seats. Question D would turn all at-large seats into district seats for a nine-district Council.

It is not entirely clear what would happen if all four measures, or both on a given issue, pass. Based on a similar council structure question in the past, the measures may cancel each other out if both pass, but that outcome is far from certain. Regardless of the outcomes, all four measures will have huge impacts in the years ahead, and they merit the awareness, and the studious attention, of everyone that will vote in Montgomery County this November.

Michael English is a resident of Downtown Silver Spring. He holds a  B.A. in Political Science from Southern Connecticut State University and a Masters of Public Administration from George Mason University. He is passionate about matters of county governance and housing affordability. Mr. English is a member of the steering committee of Montgomery for All. All views expressed in this piece are his alone.