The University of Maryland likely will do a study evaluating the pros and cons of incorporating Columbia -- but not until incorporation proponents develop a clearer vision of the city they want to create.
And there's still ample division within that group about what sort of services it would want its proposed city to provide.
"I think they're still trying to define exactly what they want us to do," said Barbara Hawk, director of the university's Institute for Governmental Service, which offers research and consulting services to all levels of Maryland government and nonprofit groups. "I think we're going to do the study. The issue is when we're going to do it."
University officials and members of the Columbia Municipal League, a citizen group pushing for a referendum on incorporation, met Monday night in Columbia to discuss obstacles to the study and the scope of research.
The league considers the outside study crucial to answer critics who say creating a city government would increase taxes and bureaucracy.
A university official said last week that the university might not do the study, because a majority of the Howard County Council opposes incorporation. But Ms. Hawk said yesterday that county politics probably would not block the study if the Columbia Municipal League wants to pursue it.
The league has collected nearly half of the roughly 8,800 signatures it needs -- 25 percent of registered Columbia voters -- to present a petition and a draft city charter to the County Council. The council has final authority to approve or reject a referendum on incorporation for Columbia voters.
Ms. Hawk said obstacles to the study include the league's own indecision on a city plan and uncertainty about access to information from the private, nonprofit Columbia Association, essentially a huge homeowners organization that oversees Columbia's recreational facilities and parkland.
Also, the UM institute's heavy workload might force a delay in the Columbia study, estimated to cost $7,500.
"I feel like the little guy with a finger in the dike," Ms. Hawk said, adding she could not estimate when a Columbia study might start.
A Columbia study would evaluate expenses for a new city government -- depending on the type of services offered -- and sources of income. It also would examine legal issues in either replacing or altering the roles of the Columbia Association and Columbia's 10 village associations.
Chuck Rees, spokesman for the municipal league, said the group would go back to the drawing board to develop a more detailed proposal for UM. "There's debate within our group about what level of services we'd want Columbia to provide," he said.