Mischief in Montgomery

I was shocked and outraged… Last Friday morning began like any other day in the Rogers Blue House in Germantown. My wife and I got our four girls up and ready for the day. We made sure their baby brother was changed and his breakfast was ready. Then out the door we went on our daily car ride to school. I love the morning rides to school because we talk—usually about whatever is on WMAL’s “Mornings on the Mall”. We’re a political family so we have fun with whatever crazy thing Trump has declared or we shake our heads at the latest Hillary controversy.

However, this past Friday I was shocked and outraged to hear that the Montgomery County Council had tentatively passed a nearly 9% property tax increase. WMAL’s Brian Wilson and guest-host Susan Ferrechio were interviewing Montgomery Council President Nancy Floreen about the massive tax hike. Just the day before, on May 19th, the County Council approved in a straw-poll a huge boost in the property tax by 8.7% on a party-line vote—that is 9-0 because the Council is made up entirely of Democrats.

I work in politics and policy and I consider myself a well-informed citizen. So why was this the first time I was hearing about such an enormous tax increase? The largest tax hike in 7 years!

The massive tax increase, which had to be passed by all nine Council members because it exceeded the county’s inflation-based charter limit, will result in an increase of $326 in property taxes for the average county homeowner. I called several members of the Council, including Ms. Floreen. Mostly, I was concerned about process. How did such a provocative proposal remain under the political radar? Staffers were generous with their time, and made clear that this proposal followed the normal budgetary process: committee hearings followed by public hearings. In fact, there were several public hearings just this last April.

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The whole thing appears so very nonchalant. The public was notified, the Washington Post did a piece, hearings were conducted. What’s the big deal? Public schools desperately need the resources. Everyone is happy.

Well, keep reading. Because I decided to dig a little. I thought, why weren’t working families outraged? After the straw-poll vote on May 19th, Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) seemed to mock taxpayers when he declared “There are no civilizations remembered in history for their tax rates, none.” He continued, “Name one. People are remembered for what they did, good or bad, but they’re not remembered for how they taxed people.”  Obviously, Councilman Elrich—a former Montgomery County Public Schools teacher—forgot his American history because the British Empire lost its North American colonies over tax rates. Maybe I’ve entered in some sort of Twilight Zone.

Recently the Washington Post reported that Council members usually make only modest changes to annual budgets submitted by the county executive. However, this year, led by Council President Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), county legislators turned that tradition on its head.

In reaching out to Ms. Floreen, I made it clear that my point of view on this issue differed sharply from her position. However, I’ve work in politics and policy for over twenty years, and value above all else civility and an honest exchange of ideas. So, I told the Council President we can disagree and not be disagreeable. We do disagree.

The Council’s vote—9-0—betrays an entrenched, liberal group-think. The process is “just the way we do things,” “it’s the normal procedure,” and “really, there’s nothing to see here.”  The Council’s arrogance is the result of having absolutely no diversity of thought. The Left claims to value diversity—race, gender, orientation—but it does not have any use for diversity in how people think or believe.

The Council held committee hearings on the tax proposal, but without public input. For input, the Council hosted public hearings in April, however unless one subscribed to some online outlet (e.g., twitter, Facebook) or received online updates from the Council, how would one know to attend the public hearings? Montgomery County lost its local paper, the Gazette, and many people do not subscribe to the Washington Post so advertising would not adequately alert the public. Unions and other special interests would be informed, but not the general public. More importantly, the Council is made up entirely of Democrats. Therefore, the Council’s circle of friends, advocates, colleagues, supporters, hangers-on is insulated. The Council’s social circle probably doesn’t include many people like me—i.e., average working families and homeowners. All of this taken together, a reasonable person might say that contrarian positions on the tax were not sufficiently represented or voiced. In fact, contrarian viewpoints weren’t even asked or invited to participate in a debate. There was no debate.

Unions representing teachers or lobbyists representing realtors might not have the same concerns as a family living paycheck to paycheck. To that family, an extra $326 is a car payment or a Pepco bill. As if to make my point for me, Council member Marc Elrich said. “…I hope residents out there focus less on the dollar a day and more on our efforts to put this county on the right path.” For his constituents, “a dollar a day” adds up to over $300 a year. That’s groceries, birthday parties, a family day-trip … it’s more than just “a dollar a day.”

It seems clear that the Montgomery County Council kept the details of its tax increase from the public because the Council has no means to communicate with most of the general public. Although, it does seem clear that the Council was fine without having a robust debate, and it was purposeful, even deceiving, in how it let the process just roll out. Unions, lobbyists, and the well-connected were given opportunities to make their views known; however average Montgomery County families, seniors, veterans—i.e., the people who live, work, and pay the taxes—were deliberately disenfranchised. Not only were the April public hearings not well publicized—confirmed by a County Council staffer—but there was no public debate of the property tax increase at the May 19th public meeting. No debate over the largest tax increase in 7 years.

The final vote on the tax increase is scheduled for tomorrow. That’s right, a vote this important scheduled for the day before Memorial Day weekend, when many people are planning their weekend activities or getting a jump on shore traffic. Instead of transparency and open debate, the Montgomery Council is sneaking past the voters a regressive property tax increase. If this is business as usual for Montgomery Dems, taxpayers best get ready for more mischief down the road.

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