A citizens' petition seeking a referendum to roll back an income tax increase was declared illegal yesterday in an opinion by Howard County Solicitor Barbara M. Cook.
The legal opinion was expected, but Patrick Dornan, president of the Howard County Taxpayers' Association, said his group is not inclined to challenge the opinion in court. The petition, submitted to the county elections board July 22, had hoped to put the issue to voters in November next year. The county income tax increase was imposed by County Executive James N. Robey and County Council Democrats in May.
Dornan said his next step is probably an attempt to enact laws or change the county charter to limit tax increases.
"What we are going to do is limit the government's ability to spend beyond their means," Dornan said. With Dornan's latest efforts sidelined, the income tax increase - from Maryland's third-lowest local rate of 2.45 percent to the legal limit of 3.2 percent - will take effect as scheduled Jan. 1.
"To force a county that claims it doesn't have any money to spend a great deal of money on a court battle makes us hypocrites," Dornan said, noting that such a battle also would be expensive for his group.
Still, the petition wasn't a waste of time, Dornan said. Even if his group doesn't go to court, more than 7,000 taxpayers signed the petition seeking a vote on the tax increase, showing that, in his view, most taxpayers want it repealed.
Robey rejected that view, saying 7,000 signatures don't make up a majority, especially "coming from people who often do not understand what it really means" to sign such a petition.
"I accept the folks' right to go out and challenge government on doing our job, but it's just so easy to say taxes are raised too much," Robey said.
"Folks say scale back government, and we have scaled back government, but at the same time taking on more calls for police, for rescue services."
Robey wondered what "the magic number" would be for an income tax rate to satisfy the protesters. He noted that rates in other Maryland counties are just below or the same as the one adopted by Howard.
"I wasn't going to worry myself with that. I wanted to do what was best for Howard County," Robey said.
Referring to the county charter and Court of Appeals decisions in similar cases, Cook wrote in a letter to election board administrator Robert J. Antonetti Sr. yesterday that "the petition is deficient." Antonetti said he would reject the petition in writing today.
"Specifically, the referendum petition is being used to challenge Bill 37 [the tax increase bill], the subject matter of which may not be petitioned to referendum," Cook's letter says.
Her letter specifically rejected an argument by Dornan's group that because the tax increase would continue for more than one year, it was not covered by the exemption to referendum in the charter. Cook said the increase raises $24 million for the current fiscal year's budget, making it vital to the budget and exempt from referendum.
Howard County's charter, she said, uses the same language the Maryland Constitution does to define which items are exempt from challenge by referendum.
Dornan said he isn't discouraged. "It's not unexpected," he said of Cook's decision.