Taxes weigh heavy on county office candidates

While some Montgomery County voters favored the Montgomery County Council’s unanimous vote to raise property above the limits of the County Charter, tax increase was one of the most contentious issues that the Council tackled in 2016, as many property owners were infuriated by the vote, which raised the average homeowner’s taxes by 8.7 percent.

With an unprecedented 33 candidates seeking the four at-large seats on the County Council as the 2018 election season gets underway, a number of contenders in the 33-candidate field are looking to stand apart from the pack by promising not to raise property taxes any further. The Sentinel surveyed all 33 at-large candidates on the subject of property tax increases, many of whom pledged to not support further property tax hikes.

Former County Council spokesman Neil Greenberger is one of the contenders who have chosen to stake their candidacies on a no-more-taxes pledge. 

“No one would run their business account or their home account the way we've been running the money of this County,” Greenberger said. “I'm a pretty liberal Democrat on every issue and have been my entire lifetime, but being a liberal Democrat and wanting to do things for people doesn't mean we need to waste money.”

But Greenberger isn’t the only at-large candidates hoping to make a name for himself as a tax hawk by pledging to vote “no” on any property tax increases, as candidates Shruti Bhatnigar and Michele Riley also made similar vows.

“We cannot go on increasing property tax,” said Bhatnagar. “Property taxes raises the cost of homeownership, which is already extremely high in the County.”

Riley said the Council should focus on bring more jobs to the County by eliminating regulations and empowering the County’s Economic Development Corporation in order to offset tax revenue decreases fueled by demographic changes.

“We have a demographic wave of baby boomer retirements taking place and the tax revenue from federal government employees that has been immune to economic cycles for so long will be decreasing,” she said.

The 33 candidates who responded the Sentinel’s queries on the matter, candidates Mohammed Siddique, Craig Carozza-Caviness, Steve Soloman, Richard Gottfried, Ron Colbert and Rosemary Arkoian joined Riley, Greenberger and Bhatnagar in pledging to not raise property taxes if elected. But while others said they would try to avoid voting for a property tax increase, they would not make a firm pledge not to do so.

"Property taxes are not the ideal mechanism for funding government services, as they fall on homeowners regardless of their current income,” said at-large candidate Chris Wilhelm. “This means that retirees and families who experience a short-term reduction in income are hit especially hard. I would vote for a property tax increase only as a last resort to solving a true fiscal crisis.”

Increasing property taxes became more difficult for the County Council after the 2014 election, when voters approved an amendment to the County Charter promoted by attorney, activist and perennial candidate Robin Ficker – currently a Republican candidate for County Executive – to require any property tax increase above the rate of inflation to garner unanimous approval from the County Council. As the 2016 property tax increase was above the rate of inflation, it became the first to require unanimous approval by the County Council.

Proponents of the latest tax increase said it was necessary to help close MCPS’ achievement gap and reduce class sizes. Candidates for County Council, realizing that another property tax increase would be unpopular with many, have each pledged to find a different route to increase revenue for the County.

“However, while I will always seek to avoid property tax increases, I will not pledge never to vote for a property tax increase in the longer term because to do so would be irresponsible,” said at-large candidate Bill Conway. “The future is unknowable, and there are any number of conceivable scenarios in which, despite best efforts to avoid it, a property tax increase could be necessary in the public interest.”

Conway, Wilhelm, Shelly Skolnick, Seth Grimes, Ashwani Jain, Evan Glass, Melissa McKenna, Paul Geller and Hoan Dang all said they would try to avoid another property tax increase, but did not outright pledge to not vote for it.

“If elected, I believe that raising the property tax rate above the Charter Limit should be a last resort,” Dang said. “In order to counteract any significant shortfall in tax revenues and balance the budget, all other feasible options must be considered first, while maintaining critical services for our County residents.”


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