Levy-payers' Revolt Not Catching

Few Turn Out To Hear Attack On Ca Assessments

November 17, 1991|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff writer

The rebels urge the citizenry to "throw the tea in the harbor" and stage a "residents' revolt," but all but a few Columbia residents are still paying and sipping their tea.

The Alliance for a Better Columbia is trying to get Columbia residents riled up over the way the Columbia Association collects "taxes," its annual levy of 75 cents per $100 of assessed value on all property originally developed by the Rouse Co. for the city.

"Federal, state and local governments are trying to hold the lid on taxes, but CA is jumping right up there," Rees said to the board and a group of seven lien-paying Oakland Mills village residents who showed up at a village association board meeting last Tuesday.

Whatis commonly known as the "lien" or "assessment" is not really a tax because the association is not exactly a government. It is, however, collected using a method similar to that used by county government.

Both county government's property tax and the association's levy are based on a portion of the assessed value of a home as determined bythe state every three years.

At reassessment time, this year for the east side of U.S. 29 and next year for the west side of Columbia,the association and county use different formulas for figuring what residents pay them.

State reassessments show three different values for determining taxes. One is the new assessed value and the other two are lower numbers, reflecting a three-year phase-in of the new value.

By state law, the county uses the lowest figure for the firstyear and the next-highest figure for the second as it phases in the increase. The Columbia Association uses the highest figure for all three years of the assessment period to figure out the levy.

In addition, the association uses 50 percent of the assessed value as a basis for its calculation instead of the 40 percent number the county uses. The county also has a 5 percent limit on assessment increases, while the association has no limit.

"The CA assessment only goes up once every three years. It doesn't go up every year like the county tax does," said Pam Mack, association vice president for community relations, during a debate last week before the Oakland Mills Village Association board.

She pointed out that county government is free to raise its tax rate to compensate for its assessment limitations, while Columbia's covenants limit the association to the 75-cent rate.

On the other side of the debate was Chuck Rees, the alliance's corporate secretary, who denounced the association's method of assessing property as "illegal, immoral and fattening."

Rees explained that his charge of CA's assessment being "illegal" stems from a 1979 county Circuit Court ruling. The court decided that using the 50 percent rate violated Columbia's covenants, which indicate that the levy must becollected using the same assessment value the county uses to figure property taxes.

That ruling was thrown out on appeal because it was brought by the association itself as a test case, an action only available to local governments.

The association paid the legal costsfor both sides of the suit in an effort to firm the legal footing ofits funding formula, which in turn would have helped strengthen its bond rating.

Because the test case was not allowed to go forward, the association instead sought an opinion from the state attorney general, who backed up the association's formula.

This year, DelegateVirginia M. Thomas, D-13A, asked for a second opinion from the Attorney General's Office. In August she received a "letter of advice" affirming the earlier decision.

Thomas also asked what type of legislation would be needed to require the association to use the same assessment the county uses, and the letter stated that the General Assembly could repeal the "savings clause," which protects institutions dependent on private contractual arrangements from the state assessmentssystem.

Although she asked for advice on how to force such a change, Thomas said she has no plans to introduce such legislation.

"Ihaven't gotten a lot of citizens banging down my door asking me to do it," she said. She also pointed out that the Columbia Council, which governs the Columbia Association, "can reduce that 75 cents per $100 any time they want."

Rees already has made presentations in Harper's Choice and Kings Contrivance villages and plans another at Tuesday night's Long Reach village board meeting. The Hickory Ridge village board has scheduled a presentation on assessments for Dec. 2, and Rees said Owen Brown's village association declined to hear one.

Rees said he is planning a Wilde Lake presentation but has not yet asked for the village association's permission.

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