- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 4, 2003

Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson wasn’t the only one crying foul after the County Council overturned his veto and sneaked a higher rate into the property-tax bills of unsuspecting homeowners.

Taxpayer advocates accused the council of acting in secrecy and sidestepping the county’s tax cap, while Mr. Johnson and others criticized the council for spending money on parks at a time when schools, police and other vital services have suffered in a budget crunch.

The tax-bill veto was hastily added to the council’s agenda at 1 p.m. Tuesday and put to a vote a half-hour later. By an 8-1 vote, the council overrode the veto and upped the property-tax rate by 3.5 cents — the new revenue inflating the budget of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

“The secretive manner in which this property-tax rate increase was proposed and adopted appears to have been deliberately and strategically done to circumvent the scrutiny of the taxpayers of this county,” Mr. Johnson, a Democrat, said in a letter to council Chairman Peter A. Shapiro.

Mr. Shapiro, Brentwood Democrat, yesterday said the council followed the rules in passing the tax measure. “I believe [Mr. Johnsons] concerns are that we did not communicate enough with him about it,” he said.

But Mr. Johnson’s concerns were echoed by Cottage City resident Edward L. Hudgins, board member of Maryland Taxpayers Association, a government-watchdog group. Mr. Hudgins said he didn’t have a chance to object to the tax increase because he didn’t know the vote was coming.

“You have a county ruling elite that quite often tries to circumvent the will of the people,” said Mr. Hudgins, director of the D.C. office of the Objectivist Center, a libertarian think tank. “The government should be fiscally responsible at this time. Instead, it is looking for new ways to take the taxpayers’ money.”

The increase of 3.5 cents per $100 in assessed value will raise the tax bill on a $200,000 house by $70. That same homeowner already is paying $96 more, thanks to this year’s 4.8-cent increase to the state’s property-tax rate.

The higher county tax will cost Mr. Hudgins about $45.50 a year. “That’s $45.50 I could use to do a number of other things,” he said.

By overriding the veto, the council also circumvented the county’s tax-cap law, which prevents raising the rate for property taxes above 96 cents without a referendum. The law, called the Tax Reform Initiative by Marylanders, or TRIM, does not apply to taxes used to support the park and planning commission.

“I believe that the council has broken their own law that was enacted by the people,” said Judy Robinson, Hyattsville resident and political activist who in the early 1990s headed Prince George’s Citizens for Tax Reform and Term Limitation.

She said that despite 63 percent of the electorate voting for TRIM and demanding that most new taxes go to referendum, council members repeatedly raise taxes. Last year, they increased the telephone tax and this year it was income and property taxes.

“Not only is it a matter of political corruption, but a voting-rights issue as well,” Mrs. Robinson said. “If you don’t adhere to what your voters en masse have told you to do, in my opinion, you are violating those voters’ rights.”

Mr. Johnson has signaled his intentions to seek a repeal of TRIM, which former County Executive Wayne K. Curry tried unsuccessfully to do in 1996. But a surreptitious property-tax increase now might complicate an already hard sell to do away with the 25-year-old law.

In 1996, 63 percent of Prince George’s County voters rejected a repeal of TRIM.

Some Prince George’s County residents complained that the council was splurging their tax dollars on the luxury of park projects while ignoring essentials services, such as police protection.

Mr. Johnson objected to the extra revenue — about $45 million — going to parks and recreation instead of the county’s ailing schools. He said the park and planning commission didn’t even request higher funding.

He said the council knew his top priority was county schools and any new revenue should be earmarked for education.

School activist Donna Hathaway Beck agreed. “We have 400 [temporary classrooms], but our council just approved a tax increase for recreation,” she said. “We have become a county where recreation funding has become more important than education funding.”

Council member Marilynn Bland, Clinton Democrat, cast the sole vote against overriding Mr. Johnson’s veto.

Jabeen Bhatti contributed to this report.

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