Columbia man loses court case that alleged his property tax was too high City's assessment method was at stake

April 14, 1993|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

A Howard County Circuit Court judge ruled yesterday that the Columbia Association did not violate its covenant with a Columbia homeowner who claimed the association overcharged him on his 1991 annual property assessment.

While the trial focused on one resident's claim that the nonprofit association overcharged him by $249.08, the underlying issue was whether the association annually is charging all Columbia property owners more than what is allowed under its covenants, state law and the U.S. Constitution.

"Based on my evaluation of the evidence and law, I'm satisfied the methods used [by the association] were in accordance with covenants and provisions," said Judge Raymond J. Kane.

He added that he found that state law authorizes the charges imposed by the association and that the levy was not unconstitutional.

The case "involves a lot more than $250," the judge said, because it raises questions concerning the association's ability to raise revenue from all Columbia property owners.

The Columbia Council, which includes representatives from the unincorporated city's 10 villages, establishes policy and sets the annual budget and property charge for the Columbia Association. The association operates recreational and community facilities, maintains open space and coordinates civic programs.

Albert Genemans, who is running for Kings Contrivance village board in the April 24 election, took his case to Circuit Court after a county District Court denied him relief in June.

Mr. Genemans' attorney and neighbor, Charles A. Rees, is running in the election as a candidate to represent Kings Contrivance village on the Columbia Council.

Both men are affiliated with Alliance for a Better Columbia, an advocacy group that frequently criticizes the association's financial dealings and backs reduced annual property liens.

About five other alliance members, including president Alex Hekimian, attended the hearing. But Mr. Hekimian said the lawsuit was brought by a private individual, not the organization.

"We're interested in Albert Genemans," Mr. Hekimian said. "He's reflecting a lot of our feelings about the way [the association] is taxing Columbia residents."

The association has the authority to charge homeowners and businesses up to 75 cents per $100, based on 50 percent of assessed property value. The state and county assess property at 40 percent of market value, and phase in increases over three years. The association does not phase in increased assessments.

The association assessed Mr. Genemans' property in 1991 at $91,250, or 50 percent of its appraised $182,500 market value. The lien for Mr. Genemans was $684.38, based on the 75 cents per $100 rate. The state and county assessed the property in 1991 at $58,040.

Mr. Genemans cited a section in the association's covenants requiring it to assess no higher than the state and county do, which now is 40 percent of market value. If the association had strictly followed that provision, Mr. Genemans would have paid $435.30.

David Bamberger, the association's attorney, argued that the state legislature granted an exemption for private contracts and covenants, such as the one between the association and property owners, allowing private organizations to maintain assessments at 50 percent of value.

"It's always been our position that [the association] is in full compliance with the covenants and Maryland law," said Pam Mack, association vice president of community relations.

Mr. Genemans called the decision an "injustice," saying he wants to take the case to a higher court.

Mr. Genemans and Mr. Rees haven't decided whether to pursue the case, Mr. Rees said. If so, and if he wins a Columbia Council seat next week, Mr. Rees could end up suing the association, which the council oversees.

"That does raise a serious problem I would consider," Mr. Rees said. "My platform is to reduce the annual charge, so this suit is consistent with why I'm running for council. But on the other hand, it's hard to sue yourself. I certainly wouldn't want to have my ethics questioned."

Mr. Hekimian said the Alliance for a Better Columbia may continue pushing for a legal change that would allow lien payments to be tax deductible. The organization interpreted the judge's ruling to mean that the association could be considered a public entity, which could bolster the alliance's argument, he said.

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