Opponents of a bill which would increase property tax bills to fund a new Independent Transit Authority (ITA) in Montgomery County are celebrating as the county may be pulling back from the plan after outraged citizens rallied against the bill and the manner in which it was introduced.
The bill (MC 24-15) would have authorized a "special taxing district", covering the entire county, and authorized a new mass transit tax. The newly created ITA would have had jurisdiction over all mass transit programs planned by the county, including proposed Bus Rapid Transit and Corridor City Transit Way plans.
The members of the ITA's board would have been selected by the county executive and would have had sweeping powers. One of the most criticized points was that the agency would be explicitly exempt from the county charter: "PROVISIONS OF THE MONTGOMERY COUNTY CHARTER DO NOT APPLY TO THE TRANSIT AUTHORITY UNLESS THE GOVERNING BODY OF MONTGOMERY COUNTY EXPRESSLY PROVIDES BY LAW THAT A CHARTER PROVISION APPLIES TO THE TRANSIT AUTHORITY" reads the bill. A letter from the county council made clear that "The central reason for an ITA is as a means to raise more funding by taking the Mass Transit Tax out from under the property tax cap in the Charter, allowing that tax to be raised significantly to support revenue bonds issued by the authority. "
The bill also would have authorized the new agency to use a "fast take" approach to acquire property (like eminent domain) for mass transit programs. The bill permitted the agency to set its own budget and specifically ensured that the agency would not submit that budget to the county council for approval. The agency would also be allowed to independently acquire debt.
Many residents were angered by the way the bill had been introduced. The County Executive had submitted to the Montgomery County House Delegation the bill after the normal deadline and the members of the house delegation voted to submit the bill before the normal public hearing on county legislation was held.
Grass Roots activists organized a Facebook page and website (shamtransit.blogspot.com) against the bill. At public hearing hastily scheduled for Friday Jan 30 with much less than the normal amount of notice, there was high turnout by the public. Opponents of the bill outnumbered supporters (many of whom were representatives of local governments, organizations which receive county money, and pro-transit groups) 40 to 28. By Saturday an online petition against the bill had garnered over 1200 signatures.
Blogger and former candidate for county council Robert Dyre reported on the hearing:
Paula Bienenfeld, representing the Montgomery County Civic Federation, asked the delegation which of them traveled to the meeting by transit. No one raised their hand. The Montgomery County Council has famously had the same response when previously asked. Yet both bodies are asking the public to "get out of their cars."The county council had also become upset that the proposal would require them to cede some authority to the new agency and stated they did not intend to support the bill as written. On Saturday the local media was reported the bill would likely not move forwards in the , for now. WTOP quoted Council Member Berlinger: “It was a little early and procedurally rushed. It was not an ideal way to start this conversation, I believe the County Executive would like more time to consider the feedback he has received. We want to give him the opportunity to revise his thinking on this.”
The online petition against the move was initially declaring victory on Saturday based on the County's decision not to support the bill: "We will be vigilant, and watch for further attempts to circumvent our county charter and impose any more stealth taxes." wrote petition organizer Jim Turner. However the bill is still alive in the General Assembly and it was reported by the ShamTransit facebook page and the anti-MC24-15 petition organizers that members of the County Delegation would be having a meeting CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC on Monday to discuss the bill.
The ShamTransit facebook page urged county to contact their delegates and stop the closed meeting:
Members of the Montgomery County Civic Association were likewise outraged by the prospect of a closed meeting on a topic generating such intense public interest.
Monday morning, Leggett wrote a letter to Montgomery County Council president Leventhal that he would request the delegation to withdraw the bill "so that we can more fully engage all stakeholders".