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Tax-increase referendum effort picks up steam

The organizer of a petition drive seeking to put Howard County's income tax increase to a referendum on next year's ballot has more than the 5,000 signatures required, he said yesterday.

Patrick Dornan of Ellicott City said his group of volunteers will continue gathering names for several more weeks, however, to ensure a margin of safety before handing in the lists to county election officials by July 23.

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That is when the legal wrestling match over whether tax increases can be petitioned to referendum likely will start, officials said.

Dornan, who said he is working on the drive full time, said he is enthused about what he is encountering from people.

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"Nine out of 10 people I ask sign the petition," he said. "Many people ask me why we're not doing a recall petition to get rid of [County Executive James N.] Robey. In every respect, this has been an overwhelming success."

Dornan said he has "just over 5,000" signatures in hand, but said he wants 7,000 to make sure enough qualify because typically 20 percent of names on referendum petitions are rejected. That means three more weekends of name-gathering for his committee.

"Down at the lakefront in Columbia Fourth of July weekend, there will be thousands of people," he said, adding that the volunteers are careful to ask each person if he or she is a registered voter in Howard County before signing.

The County Council approved Robey's request for the income tax increase May 23, which marked the start of the 60-day deadline for gathering signatures. On Jan. 1, Howard's local income tax rate is to increase from 2.45 percent - Maryland's third-lowest - to 3.2 percent - the highest rate allowable. That is expected to bring in about $24 million in the fiscal year that began yesterday and about $60 million next fiscal year.

If successful, the petition drive would halt the tax increase until after the November 2004 elections, throwing a monkey wrench into the Robey administration's budget plans.

However many names are collected, county officials contend a referendum on the tax increase is not allowed under law.

"Our position is we don't think it can legally be placed on the ballot," Robey aide Herman Charity said. Robert J. Antonetti Sr., the county election administrator, is the official who will first make that determination under state law.

And despite Dornan's claims of success, County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said he believes higher local taxes will be offset by federal tax cuts - a change he thinks most people would support.

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"I think people realize that at the local level is where they are getting the clearest return for their dollar," he said. "I've heard people say that if there's going to be a place to cut, it's at the federal level and they'd be willing to pay more for their own community. That's exactly what's happening."

County auditor Ronald S. Weinstein said that although a family of four with a median household income of $83,100 would pay $521 more in county income taxes, federal income tax cuts would save them $2,654 a year, amounting to a net income tax reduction of $2,131.

But Republican state Del. Warren E. Miller said county government is "wasting money" on items such as wireless Internet access in the county's central library, although library officials said it cost less than $3,000 to install. "As a taxpayer, it infuriates me," Miller said.

"People are pretty agitated with this tax [increase]," he said, adding that he, like others, expects the referendum drive to end up in court.

If the referendum is blocked, several supporters hinted that other moves to limit county taxes are possible - such as tax-limiting charter amendments that have curbed tax increases in Prince George's, Anne Arundel and Talbot counties.

But Guzzone said he thinks the majority of county taxpayers support Robey's budget plan.

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"I am confident that the citizens of the county recognize that we have excellent schools and we need to have excellent public safety protection, and they realize there's a cost associated with that."


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