Pitfalls, promise seen in city status

November 20, 1994|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

The idea of turning Columbia into a city raises a red flag for Oakland Mills village board member Eric H. Bauman.

"Adding a layer of government is not going to decrease taxes. They'll increase," he said in criticizing a citizens coalition for failing to show how incorporating Columbia would benefit residents.

Many Columbia residents, including founder James W. Rouse, share Mr. Bauman's wariness. They fear incorporation would increase taxes, provide few benefits, harm relations with Howard County government and create an additional layer of bureaucracy atop the nonprofit Columbia Association, which manages the planned community's park and recreation facilities.

But incorporation proponents, government experts and a leader of an incorporation drive on the Eastern Shore say turning Columbia into a city could save money, increase efficiency and accountability and work well with county government.

A city government offering limited services could be financed in relatively affluent Columbia largely through state-shared revenues from income taxes that now go to Howard County, say Maryland Municipal League and University of Maryland government experts.

But proponents, skeptics and experts all agree that the costs and benefits cannot be determined until decisions on the functions of the proposed Columbia city government are made and financial arrangements with the county worked out.

Should Columbia incorporate, the uncertain fate of the Columbia Association (CA) would complicate matters.

The association -- a huge, multiservice homeowners association directed by the elected Columbia Council -- has run Columbia since its founding 27 years ago. A private corporation with a $32 million annual budget, it collects a yearly levy from Columbia property owners, owns the town's parkland and is liable for the community's debt of about $80 million.

Association's future debated

Some legal experts contend that even if a city government sought to take over many of the association's functions, the existing organization could continue levying its property charge and providing services under land deeds signed by all Columbia property owners.

The Coalition of Governance Concerned Columbia Residents began this fall the debate over proposals to incorporate the town of 80,000 residents by circulating a petition requesting a vote on the issue. To get the ballot measure, the group -- which advocates more responsive, open governance -- must gather roughly 10,000 signatures from Columbia voters and gain approval from the County Council.

Kent Island movement

A similar debate has reached a more advanced stage in Queen Anne's County, where a citizen group plans to give a petition to that county's commissioners for a vote in spring 1995 on incorporating Kent Island, a growing community of 14,000 residents across the Bay Bridge from Annapolis.

The two citizen movements have different motives, said Victor Tervala, government consultant at the University of Maryland's Institute for Governmental Service (IGS), which performed two studies for Kent Island.

The differences

Kent Island leaders feel neglected by the county and want more control over growth and public safety, while Columbia's drive is inspired by more nebulous "good government" principles, he said.

"Usually people are angry at something," Mr. Tervala said. "In Columbia, they're angry at private government essentially."

Like Columbia, Kent Island accounts for about 40 percent of its county's population and at least 30 percent of its county's

assessable tax base.

The leader of the 4-year-old movement on Kent Island, Richard Jarenski, said incorporating the county's largest community would provide benefits -- planning and zoning, business licensing and increased police protection -- at virtually no additional cost to Kent Island or Queen Anne's County residents.

He has told the Columbia coalition that the best way to win NTC support is to give residents concrete reasons to support incorporation.

'Value added' needed

"You can't just form a government to provide a layer of government. You have to give a 'value added' back," said Mr. Jarenski, 52, who ran as a Republican in 1990 for a Queen Anne's commissioner seat. "That group has to decide what that is. The nitty-gritty is when you write the [new city's] charter and decide what to give to the people."

Mr. Jarenski said his Kent Island group is trying to combat a "great apathy" about government and a widespread perception that incorporating the island would increase taxes. "Our new government wouldn't have any of the old bad habits, but it's awfully hard to convince people of that," he said.

Mr. Jarenski envisions a Kent Island government that would be more responsive than Queen Anne's County government, aggressively soliciting residents' views and acting on their spending priorities.

'Closer to the people'

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