Attorney general asked to rule on property assessment change

Effect of new state law on Columbia under study

January 31, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

The state attorney general's office is trying to determine whether a new Maryland law forced the Columbia Association to change the way it assesses property or whether the change was unnecessary and illegal.

The office is formulating a legal opinion on the matter at the request of Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Democrat who lives in Columbia.

The Columbia Council voted Dec. 21 to assess property at 100 percent of valuation rather than 50 percent, saying the change was needed to comply with the Truth in Taxation law.

The change does not affect the amount Columbia residents will be charged on their next assessment bills because the council also voted to cut the lien rate in half.

Some council members said the resolution opens the door to huge assessment increases because it allows the council to circumvent an assessment ceiling intended to limit how high Columbia's equivalent of property taxes can rise.

Critics of the move say lien payers should not be exposed to the risk of higher assessments because, they contend, the new law does not apply to the Columbia Association.

That was the finding of the attorney general's office in June, when it issued a "letter of advice" on the matter. The letter said the law did not apply to the private homeowners association because it is not a municipal or county government.

The official opinion Pendergrass is seeking has more weight than such advice because it is more thoroughly researched and personally signed by the attorney general, as opposed to one of his assistants.

Pendergrass, who had sought advice and distributed the letter last summer to Columbia Council members, said she was surprised and concerned by the council's December vote.

"I thought the advice was pretty clear: It said the Columbia Association was not in this legislation," she said. " I think people felt confident knowing there was a ceiling there. And my constituents and I will feel uncomfortable knowing it's not there."

In an interview after the council's action in December, Assistant Attorney General Robert A. Zarnoch questioned the Columbia Association's authority to assess property at anything other than 50 percent valuation, as dictated by state law for more than 20 years. Zarnoch wrote the June letter of advice.

Zarnoch and other representatives of the attorney general's office met Friday with lawyers for the Columbia Association, including David H. Bamberger, to discuss the matter.

"We asked a lot of questions, and I think we're better informed as to what the arguments are to the contrary," Zarnoch said. "We didn't come out and say, `OK, we're completely wrong.' ... I don't think anybody declared error - not yet anyway. Maybe not ever."

Zarnoch said it typically takes 10 weeks to draft an opinion but that he does not expect this case to take that long.

An opinion from the attorney general's office does not have the force of law, but it could have an impact if the matter goes to court, Zarnoch said.

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