The great tax-limit debate won't be waged in Anne Arundel County this fall, after all.
A petition drive has failed to produce 10,000 valid signatures, the number needed to let voters decide whether to change county law and open the door to higher property taxes, according to the county Board of Elections.
The drive yielded 12,344 signatures, and the board threw out 3,995, said director Barbara Fisher. About half of the invalid signatures were discarded because the signers weren't registered to vote in the county.
Other flaws included no address given for the signer, illegible handwriting and no date on the petition. In 740 cases, the voter signed on a different date from the witness, Fisher said, making those entries invalid.
Citizens for a Competitive Anne Arundel County waged the campaign to modify the tax ceiling. It had hoped to convince voters that low taxes have contributed to problems such as deteriorating schools and comparatively low salaries for teachers and firefighters.
The group's proposal would have let property tax revenue grow annually by 4.5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever was higher. The ceiling, passed overwhelmingly by voters in 1992, limits tax increases to 4.5 percent or inflation, whichever is lower.
In Maryland, only Prince George's County has a similar law.
Opponents of the drive dismissed the notion that the tax limit has hurt Anne Arundel and pointed to multimillion-dollar budget surpluses in recent years as evidence to the contrary.
The board's decision means a showdown over the ceiling will not take place until at least 2002, the next opportunity for the issue to be placed on the ballot.
"It was a surprise to us and a disappointment," said Bob Kramer, spokesman for Citizens for a Competitive Anne Arundel County, which began gathering signatures March 31. "We succeeded, but we didn't succeed technically."
The group, formed about a year ago, drew support from many sources, including labor unions, education groups and the Annapolis and Anne Arundel Chamber of Commerce.
Still, persuading a majority of voters to change the tax ceiling would have been a tall order, said Dan Nataf, who directs the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College.
A poll of 429 county residents that Nataf conducted in March found that 58 percent did not know the ceiling existed. Even so, a slight majority, 54 percent, said they did not think the limit has harmed the county's ability to deliver services.
As late as mid-August, Kramer's group had yet to formulate a detailed strategy to take its message to the electorate. Kramer conceded that his group faced an uphill battle but said the public's support was borne out by the 12,000 signatures on the petitions.
"We hope the debate and discussions will continue, because the issue isn't going to go away," he said.
It could be some time before another petition drive is begun. Kramer said it's too early to say whether there will be another attempt in 2002, when County Executive Janet S. Owens and six of the seven County Council members will be up for re-election if they choose to run.
Robert C. Schaeffer, chairman of the Anne Arundel Taxpayers Association and the author of the tax ceiling, predicted that the next try will be in 2004, if only to avoid the possibility that Owens and other candidates might take adversarial positions on the sensitive topic.
Owens expressed tacit support for lifting the ceiling but said she had no intention of coming down publicly on one side or the other had the issue made it on the ballot.
Schaeffer said the booming economy and budget surpluses undercut Kramer's argument that the tax limit has been harmful. Citizens for a Competitive Anne Arundel County was mainly interested in steering more money to unions, he said.
"This has never been about the children," Schaeffer said.