Columbia faces a governance crossroads

June 14, 1992|By Patrick Hickerson TOP TEN :. Erik Nelson | Patrick Hickerson TOP TEN :. Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

When a city turns 25, is it time to cut loose and go it alone?

"A city the size of ours, 75,000 people, can't go on this way forever," says Alex Hekimian, president of the Alliance for a Better Columbia.

Just what way Columbia should go, and how different that might be from its current governance, is what some residents are examining as they celebrate the city's 25th birthday.

The Columbia Forum's Governance Initiative is reaching the end of a 1 1/2 -year study of four paths for Columbia's leadership: keeping and improving the current village system, creating a municipality, creating a special tax district, or giving control of Columbia facilities to the Howard County government.

As it now stands, Columbia's population makes up half of the county, whose government provides its essential services. Columbia is a model planned city, but it lacks a government that can enact laws, enforce them or control land use.

If it were incorporated, it would be the state's most populous municipality after Baltimore. And unlike Baltimore, it is still growing.

Its quasi-government is a collection of village homeowners associations and the citywide Columbia Association. Many residents argue that the system has worked just fine for a quarter-century, so why change it?

Change what?

One of first tasks faced by the Governance Initiative was defining Columbia's current governance. Is the Columbia Association a government, and is its annual charge on property a tax?

The Columbia Association and its nine village associations (10 next year) are homeowners associations. Such associations collect fees mandated by property covenants. With that money they maintain common property, enforce architectural standards and build paths, pools and playgrounds.

With an operating budget of nearly $30 million, the association has confounded such simple definitions. Among other things, it provides the only public transit in the county, ColumBus. It runs two athletic clubs and an indoor swim center. It runs one golf course and plans to build another.

Probably its best-known amenity is its network of 21 neighborhood pools, which Columbia Council Chairman John Hansen recently compared to the county government's one.

Despite the association's resemblance to a government, and despite its petition arguing that point, the Internal Revenue Service still considers it a homeowners association. That definition costs the association millions of dollars in annual bond interest and prohibits residents from deducting the annual property charge. The charge, or "lien," is 73 cents per $100, based on 50 percent of a property's assessed value.

Still, 63.5 percent of Columbia residents like the current system, and 73.8 percent are opposed to dismantling it, according to a poll taken last year by the Columbia Forum Governance Initiative.

But the driving force behind the initiative is that 65 percent of the residents believe the governance system will need change in the future.

The most popular change would allow individuals to vote. Eight of the nine Columbia Council members are elected by household or property votes. Kings Contrivance village allows all adults to vote, a policy favored by 80 percent of those questioned for the governance survey.

City of Columbia

Creating a municipality would allow more local control of services, money and development, but would radically change the city's relationship to the county.

"Unless they incorporate Columbia, and I doubt that will happen, it will kind of get blurred into one big sub-metropolitan area," says Eileen Henderson, a retired teacher and one of Columbia's early residents.

In addition to defining city borders and collecting property taxes that homeowners could deduct from income taxes, the city could also collect 17 percent of the "piggyback" state income tax collected from city residents. A city council could opt to receive the county admissions-amusement tax and state highway user revenues.

Tax-exempt bonds with lower interest rates could finance city facilities. This would cost about 25 percent less than the Columbia Council has to pay holders of its $83 million in long-term debt, says James P. Peck, associate information director of the Maryland Municipal League.

Controlling that money would be a city council elected by all adult residents from districts of equal population. The city council could enact and enforce its own laws, control zoning, and regulate businesses.

But creating a municipality is not easy, Peck says, because the County Council can veto it.

A 'special' district

The one change that has already been tried in Columbia is creating a special tax district. In 1978, state legislators rejected an attempt to do that by the Columbia Council.

Several governance focus groups reported that they disliked the fact that county government would control how the money would be spent in a county special tax district. That would not be true of a state tax district, however.

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