The citizens group pushing to turn Columbia into a city has raised enough money to commission a University of Maryland feasibility study -- if county politics doesn't kill the study first.
The Columbia Municipal League considers the $7,500 study -- a financial and legal analysis that would include a draft city charter -- crucial to deflecting critics who argue that making Columbia a city would increase costs and add a layer of government.
League members plan to meet with UM officials today to negotiate the scope of the study. The league recently received $4,000 for the study from a non-Columbia resident the group declined to identify.
But with most members of the Howard County Council opposed to incorporation, consultants at the university worry whether incorporation will ever make it to the ballot and say that could determine whether they go ahead with the study.
"We want to make sure this is still a viable project in the face of that sort of disagreement on the County Council from the get-go," said Victor Tervala, a government consultant with the university's Institute for Governmental Service, the group that would conduct the study.
The study and draft charter would "change the nature of the discussion from people defending their points of view to dealing with a real city plan," said Rabbi Martin Siegel, league spokesman. "A lot of objections are based on things that don't exist."
But Howard County Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga, a West Friendship Republican, warns that the study would be a "waste of money" because the council is leaning heavily against ever allowing the issue to go to a referendum.
Such opposition worries officials at IGS, who say they want to know whether the incorporation drive is a viable option before committing themselves to the study.
Mr. Tervala notes that the council has the final authority to decide whether the issue will be put on the ballot. If the council is against it, he said, there's little point in doing a study.
The study and draft charter -- which could take 18 months or more to complete -- would be one of the largest and most complicated incorporation projects ever for the University of Maryland's government research and consulting agency, Mr. Tervala said.
It would evaluate expenses and sources of income for a city of Columbia, and the type of government, considering the unincorporated community's extensive system of homeowners' associations.
"That's a lot of staff resources," he said. "On the other hand, it's an important incorporation [effort]. We'd like to be part of it."
The municipal league plans to ask IGS to consider several broad possibilities, including options in which a government the nonprofit Columbia Association and another in which the association would survive.
Chuck Rees, a leader of the incorporation effort, said the league hopes to persuade the University of Maryland to go ahead by stressing the historical significance of the governance issue in Columbia -- debated since the early 1970s -- and the support reflected in the league's petition drive.
The league has been circulating a petition to incorporate Columbia, a community of 82,000 residents, for almost a year. The group estimates it has collected nearly half of the roughly 8,800 signatures it needs -- 25 percent of Columbia's registered voters -- to seek approval of a referendum from the County Council.
Mr. Feaga, however, said a consultant's report might have little influence on the council.
"We in the county have lived here since the birth day of Columbia. We know how it operates pretty well," he said. "People coming from the outside won't know near as well what it needs."