I told you this was coming back in 2012, and now it's here. A new tax that will cost many Bethesda homeowners around $1000-1500+ a year has been planned by Montgomery County since that time. But the problem they've faced is, how to introduce the largest across-the-board tax increase in County history, but avoid the political damage to themselves?
Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich has previously suggested having developers pay the cost for the $5 billion boondoggle known as Bus Rapid Transit, given that the system will generate more real estate developer profits than actual riders - even according to County planner Larry Cole' original ridership estimates (before he got a good talking-to from the MoCo political machine, and hastily revised his numbers).
If you follow county politics, home of the $72 million tax-cut for developers in White Flint, you know that developers aren't going to pay for this. You, the taxpayer will foot the bill, even as you deal with the traffic worsened by BRT taking lanes from cars on MD 355 and Georgia Avenue, reducing capacity on those already-jammed roads by 33%.
But how to do this politically? After all, the BRT is such a weak project, it qualifies for no federal funding, and proponents have been unable to identify or procure a single penny to build it.
Introducing the Montgomery County Independent Transit Authority.
While no one was paying attention, MoCo elected officials did a run-around the public. First they hid a state bill that would give them authority to create this Independent Taxing, er, Transit Authority. Then, after the deadline for bills from the Montgomery County Delegation, the bill was snuck in.
No public hearing. No public announcement.
The only way I found out about it, was that I was signed up for a County email list, and received a fact sheet on a Friday afternoon - and if you're in the PR and politics business, you know that's the time of the week that politicians dump something they want the public to ignore.
More secrecy. An unannounced public hearing will be held by the same delegation that hid this unlimited tax-hike bill from you for weeks, this Friday in Rockville, a mere 7 days after the bill's existence was even made public. It only exists on this website if you do a Google search, and 99% of the public doesn't even know it should look for it at all. It's outrageous.
What will Bill MC 24-15 do?
Not all of the implications are even know or understood by the public yet.
Here's what's known so far:
The bill will permit creation of a 5-member Independent Taxing Authority board. Those 5 members will be chosen by County Executive Ike Leggett, subject to approval by the County Council. They will have the power to raise taxes on everyone, including the poorest residents of the county. In fact, residents in places like Poolesville, Westbard, Potomac, and Damascus - who won't even have BRT to use in their areas - will have to pay the tax, too.
Most significantly, there is no limit to the amount of taxes the ITA could raise, even within one year. Leggett's Rapid Transit Task Force recommended a 15% property tax hike, which is what would lead to yearly payments in the hundreds of dollars for even those who own condos in older buildings, or more than a thousand a year for those in luxury condos and McMansions.
And as unelected officials, they are entirely unaccountable to the voters. Of course, that's the brilliance of this scheme, in that the County Council and Executive will be able to shirk the blame for higher taxes off onto this hatchet team that can be as mean and nasty as they want, without any threat of removal from the public.
That is Taxation without Representation.
But wait, it gets worse. Check out Line 6 of Page 4, and Line 7 of Page 7 of MC 24-15/House Bill 104, and you find out that not only would this Transit Authority be able to take on unlimited debt, but that the County can even shift debt and financial obligations to it. Theoretically, the County Council could transfer the "assets and obligations" of any boondoggle or pet project - including the Silver Spring Transit Center - to this body. And you would be stuck with the bill, while the County Council avoids having to be the body raising your taxes to pay for it, and gets to spend more money on its sugar daddies, the developers.
That makes the ITA a virtually unlimited vehicle to raise taxes and blow the County budget even beyond its already-ridiculous $5 billion proportions. And there will be absolutely nothing you can do to stop it.
According to Line 10 of Page 5 in HB 104, the ITA will not have to submit its capital and operating budgets for approval to the County. To quote directly from the bill:
That directly contradicts claims that the County Council will have approval authority over its budgets.
But, wait, there's more.
Not only would the ITA be exempt from the "Ficker Amendment" to the County Charter, which provides what little restraint exists on the amount of taxes the County can raise in any year, but it gets even worse. According to 6C and 6D on Page 5 of HB 104, no amendment could be made to the Charter in the future that would restrict or cap the amount of revenue the ITA could raise at any time.
Meaning that, even if an activist like Robin Ficker were to collect signatures to get such an amendment on the ballot, it could not be applicable to the ITA.
While the tax issues may be the most blatantly abusive and offensive in this power grab, there are other provisions that must be examined, as well.
The ITA would have de facto eminent domain authority, and the ability to demolish homes and businesses. That raises the specter of the quiet plans to demolish 155 homes and businesses along Georgia Avenue between Olney and Wheaton for a BRT line. Don't like it? Too bad, the ITA is unelected, and would not be thrown out in the next election by angry residents (assuming they still had a house to reside in). And assuming a board member with ties to developers was appointed to the ITA (such as Mark Winston's ethically-questionable role on Leggett's Rapid Transit Task Force), the body could wheel and deal in the real estate market with public money, and developers could acquire private or County land at sweetheart prices, among other potential abuses.
There would also be a currently-undisclosed bureaucracy of new government employees who would be hired for the Authority, with the high-ticket pay and benefits one expects from Montgomery County. With many County departments currently understaffed for financial reasons, where would the money for that come from? From you, of course.
Who voted for this now-you-don't-see-it-now-you-do MC 24-15 bill?
Thanks to the Parents' Coalition of Montgomery County, that information is available.
In Bethesda, Delegates Bill Frick, Ariana Kelly and Marc Korman all voted to approve this "late-filed" legislation. In Rockville, Delegates Kumar Barve, James Gilchrist, and Andrew Platt all voted YEA, as well.
Worst of all, this bill has all the wrong priorities. Completing our unfinished master plan highway system would move the most people for far less money. Yet this ITA would do nothing for highways, or even to repair the ones we already have. In fact, it will use dirty tactics to fund a BRT system that would actually reduce highway capacity, and that the vast majority of residents oppose.
MC 24-15/HB 104 must be stopped. One citizen group is already organizing against it, and there is a Change.org petition online. The gumption of the county's elected officials is something to marvel at, given they just got walloped by Maryland voters who rose up in a tax revolt, of all things.
With all of the leeway in this legislation, $1000 per Bethesda resident per year could be just the starting point for the Independent Taxing Authority.
What's in your wallet?