Unbowed by his latest political defeat — a distant third-place finish in the race for Montgomery County executive last fall — political provocateur Robin Ficker is gearing up for another campaign.
Ficker, whose regular attempts to change county politics and policy through ballot initiatives have had a profound impact on the county, has begun collecting signatures for a ballot measure that would cap Montgomery’s property tax rate.
His aim is to put the ballot question before voters in the 2020 general election.
Ficker, a defense attorney who has run 20 times for local, state or federal office, as a Republican or an independent, is currently seeking the required 10,000 signatures he needs to put the measure on the ballot limiting the Montgomery County property tax rate to the rate of inflation. He has collected 6,000 petition signatures so far, and he said he expects to “wrap that up and turn it in by the end of the year,” well before the August 2020 deadline.
Ficker, who has been in the county political scene for more than four decades — serving in the Maryland House of Delegates from 1979 to 1983 — has spearheaded dozens of ballot initiatives over the years, though not all have been successful. His biggest political victories came in 2008, when voters approved his measure to require a unanimous County Council vote to raise property taxes, and in 2016, when he imposed term limits on the Council and county executive.
The term limit law helped transform county politics in 2018: Voters elected a new executive for the first time in a dozen years, and four of the nine Council members are new. Ficker was the Republican nominee for county executive last year, taking 16 percent in a three-candidate election.
Since all the Montgomery County Council members are Democrats, Ficker wants to ensure that even a unanimous vote cannot allow property tax rate increases to exceed the inflation rate.
In 2016, the council passed an 8.7 percent increase in property tax rates to fund the school system, nearly five times the inflation rate of 1.8 percent.
“The average person can’t take increases of that magnitude,” Ficker said.
The county’s proposed budget for next year holds the property tax rate but in order to do so, cuts money from the health benefits trust fund for retirees.
“The county government is acting very irresponsibly,” Ficker said. “They’re borrowing from our future to balance the budget now, even though they have these huge obligations in the future for health benefits and pensions.
“They are also acting very irresponsibly about the school system,” he continued. “They believe that throwing as much money as they can at the school system will win plaudits from primary voters and that’s all they’re concerned about.”
In some years — but not all — an array of Montgomery County powerbrokers lines up to defeat Ficker’s amendments. That did not happen during the 2016 term limit vote, and it’s too early to tell what might happen in 2020.
District 1 Councilmember Andrew Friedson (D), one of the business community’s strongest allies in Rockville, said that although he is not interested in a property tax increase he does not think Ficker’s ballot initiative is needed.
“I think we have a pretty strong situation currently where we can’t exceed the charter limit without a nine-to-nothing vote of the county council,” Friedson said. “My emphasis and my focus would be on utilizing that energy to push for serious … fiscal sustainability practices that we can put into place.”
“Unless we grow our economy, this is a moot issue,” he added. “It’s not about taxes, it’s not about restricting the ability to raise taxes. It’s about growing the tax base so that we don’t have to raise the tax rates.”
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