Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) is moving to block a referendum on the county’s fuel energy tax, likely forcing a court battle.
Leggett said Tuesday he is rejecting a petition submitted Monday by Robin Ficker that seeks to place a question on the November ballot to change the county charter and require all nine county council members to approve any energy tax increase above the rate of inflation.
“I'm sure that tomorrow or next day we will be in court,” Leggett said.
State law does not empower voters to impose a so-called supermajority vote — all of the council members — on excise taxes, Leggett said.
Believing Ficker’s petition to be inconsistent with state law, Leggett said he will not certify the petition, setting the stage for having the matter ultimately decided in court.
Ficker said he and his attorney are researching and preparing legal action.
“We certainly are not going to be dissuaded from pursuing this matter because he is taking a political stand,” Ficker said of Leggett. “He forgets that the voters are his boss. He doesn't want the voters to have their say, he doesn’t want to hear what they have to say.”
When asked Monday if he was prepared for a legal challenge by the county, Ficker said he would not put anything past them.
“If they are going to resort to a frivolous challenge this time, if they want to go that way, they may end up in federal court,” he said.
Ficker, a lawyer, submitted about 14,500 signatures to Leggett’s office Monday. The executive’s office had until the end of the day Tuesday to review the signatures and the petition and decide if it would forward it to the Montgomery County Board of Elections for verification, County Attorney Marc Hansen said.
Ficker needs 10,000 valid signatures for the amendment question to appear on the Nov. 6 ballot.
In May 2010, the county hiked energy taxes by 85 percent, or an estimated $13 per month for the average residential customer. As written, the increase was to revert back to the lower rate on July 1, 2012. Prior to the hike, the energy tax rate was about 0.5 cents per kilowatt hour for residential electric customers. Nonresidential electric customers, such as businesses and government, paid 1.3 cents per kilowatt hour.
But the county opted to continue all but 10 percent of the increase for fiscal 2013 and also grow its operating spending by about 5.6 percent or $245 million above the previous year.
“They have to learn to live within their means,” Ficker said of the Montgomery County Council and executive. “They have to control their spending.”
Ficker said his question is about more than just limiting energy tax increases.
Council members broke their legislative promise to constituents that the increase was temporary when they extended it this year, he said.
Montgomery County also had the authority to challenge the legality of the signatures submitted by Ficker, Hansen said, a move it has employed against other ballot initiatives.
It challenged the legality of signatures to put police effects bargaining — bargaining that allowed police to negotiate some management decisions such as staffing, transfers and new equipment — on the November ballot. In its lawsuit, the county claims some of the signatures might not be valid and those gathering signatures might have committed fraud. Now on appeal, the case will be argued Thursday before the Court of Appeals in Annapolis, Hansen said.
As of July 30, the county has spent $200,872 challenging those signatures, Patrick Lacefield, a county spokesman wrote in an email.