Town fees for Columbia are too high, group says

March 16, 1991|By Michael J. Clark | Michael J. Clark,Howard County Bureau of The Sun

Columbia property owners have been overcharged on their town fees for the past 12 years, with each household paying more than $1,000 too much, a group of civic activists contends.

The controversial claim was raised by the Alliance for a Better Columbia at Thursday night's meeting of the Columbia Council, which manages public facilities in the unincorporated city.

Council Chairman Charles A. Acquard discounted the alliance claims yesterday, saying that the law firm of Piper & Marbury had given town officials an opinion concluding that they were not overcharging property owners.

The Columbia Association assesses 27,000 homes and thousands of commercial properties to pay for its operations and upkeep of a network of open spaces, recreation facilities and a bus service.

Civic activists question the legality of the way the association levies its fees, which like state and local property taxes are based on the assessed value of real estate. The annual charge is 75 cents for each $100 of assessed value.

In 1978, the association successfully pushed for state legislation that allows non-profit groups to use a different formula than the state's in determining how much a property owner must pay.

The Alliance for a Better Columbia maintains that association covenants require the non-profit organization to follow the same procedures used by the county and state in assessing fees.

As a result, the alliance contends that the non-profit association is overcharging property owners in three ways:

* The association bases its fees on 50 percent of the property's market value, rather than 40 percent figure used by the state tax assessors.

* It does not phase in increases in assessed value over three years, as the state does. Instead, the association assesses at the highest value, which ordinarily would go into effect in the third year.

* It has not followed the county's lead in capping assessment increases at 5 percent a year. Instead, the association bases its fees on the full increase.

"We believe we have a strong case," said Alex Hekimian, a trans

portation planner who is president of the citizens' advocacy group.

"We are asking the Columbia Association to stop their current assessment practice," he said, "or we will seek other remedies."

However, he said the alliance has not decided whether it would take legal action.

He also said that the alliance's research so far has been restricted to residential holdings and that he could not say how commercial properties may have been affect- ed.

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