In a surprise move last, Thursday, County Executive Ike Leggett sent "late" bill MC 24-15 to our Montgomery County delegation in Annapolis asking for authority to create an Independent Transit Authority funded by a tax added to our property tax that is not subjected to current limits on that tax's increases. The bill is late because it was submitted seven weeks after county bills were due. Most County submitted bills are discussed in public hearings in Rockville in early December. The late submission means there was no public, transparent consideration of the bill – despite the fact that the consultant’s report that formed the basis of this bill was submitted to the County Executive more than one year ago, and was never presented to the Rapid Transit System steering committee.
This bill needs approval by the state legislature before the County can move on it. Late bills are considered on a fast track in Annapolis . The Montgomery County House delegation on Friday voted 19-4 to accept this legislation, and it may well be voted on by both houses before the scheduled April 13 adjournment. In response to a flood of protests from civic activists, legislators have agreed to hold a required hearing in Rockville instead of Annapolis on Friday, January 30, at 6pm.
If passed, this bill will allow the County to create an Independent Transit Authority (ITA). The County needs State authority to create such an agency. Concern among budget and legislation watchers is that there was a lack of transparency leading up to the submission of this bill and no public discussion, yet it gives authority to a new independent agency – and gives the agency authority to circumvent the County Charter 's limit on property tax increases.
Whether an Independent Transit Authority is a good idea or not, the details and impacts of this legislation need to be publicly debated and discussed before it goes to Annapolis for approval. The stealth with which this bill was developed and submitted lead many to think that quiet negotiations have cleared the road to approval both at the State level and in the County Council. We urge you to write to the Montgomery County House delegation and ask them to send the bill back to the County for public discussion, delaying any state action until County residents and taxpayers have had an opportunity to study and discuss the bill. Legislator email addresses are below.
The proposed Independent Transit Authority is somewhat akin to setting up another WSSC, run by a compensated board and self funded. Instead of "rates," the ITA would be funded by an extra fee on your property tax collected from "special tax areas," which could encompass the whole county, areas along particular transit routes, or whatever parameter the authority chooses. That extra property tax fee would not be subject to the County Charter limit that restricts property tax increases and puts a ceiling on the total amount of property taxes collected by the County. This charter limit was approved by the County residents in 1990.
Right now, as part of our property tax and under the charter limit, we pay a $0.04 per $100 assessed value "mass transit tax." That is not enough to fund the additional public transit projects proposed to reduce congestion in the County. The ITA, as described in the bill, could fund BRT, light rail, bridges, tunnels, property acquisition, parking lots, and garages, and even acquire property by condemnation, and probably even take on the debt on the Silver Spring Transit Center . But it won't have to present a budget to the Council every year like WSSC does.
The ITA, according to the legislation, could also issue bonds and incur debt that will not affect the County's debt ceiling or bond rating. In fact, the County could move debt off their books and onto the ITA's, and then increase spending and debt. The ITA debt will be guaranteed by future special taxes it can collect through the new separate tax on your property taxes. The County "may not require the ITA to submit capital or operating budget to County for approval."
If you think that MC 24-15 should be rejected by the Montgomery County delegation to the State legislature because it has not been properly introduced and discussed among the residents of Montgomery County, please write to the County’s state legislature delegates asking that they reject MC-24-15. Mr. Leggett can re-introduce the legislation next year.
As noted earlier, the Montgomery County delegation has agreed to hold a rare "late" bill public hearing in Rockville instead of Annapolis on Friday, January 30 at 6 pm. This does not substitute for internal public discourse between citizens and the County Executive . The presence of a significant crowd at the hearing would show our legislators that this is not the right way to do things. So please – come to the County Council Building, 100 Maryland Avenue in Rockville on Friday, January 30 at 6 pm.
Here is the voting list showing who in the Montgomery County Delegation voted to allow this bill to move through the legislature this session.