Board undoes Dec. change in assessment

Attorney general ruled earlier action was unnecessary

Resolution passes 8-0

Concern expressed about potential of higher-tax loophole

March 23, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

The Columbia Association's board of directors voted last night to undo a change made three months ago in the way it calculates the local equivalent to property taxes.

In doing so, the directors of the homeowners' association essentially rescinded a December vote that the Maryland attorney general found unnecessary, and that some board members said put lien-payers at risk of drastically higher assessment bills.

The board passed a resolution to go back to assessing property at 50 percent of its value, instead of at the 100 percent called for in a resolution passed Dec. 21.

The reversal will not affect the amount lien-payers will be charged when assessment bills are sent out this summer because it was coupled with a corresponding change in the lien rate. But critics of the December vote said last night's action would close a loophole that the change had opened around a long-standing limit on Columbia Association liens.

Last night's vote formalized a decision that board members - who serve as the Columbia Council - made at a meeting two weeks ago.

Rather than rescind the vote, the board passed a resolution recounting what led to the December vote and the decision to reverse it, saying it was important to document why the actions were taken. The only discussion before last night's vote centered on some of the details.

The board had voted 6-4 to assess property at 100 percent instead of 50 percent of value. It also cut the lien rate from 73 cents per $100 of assessed value to 36.5 cents.

A lawyer for the council, David H. Bamberger of Piper, Marbury, Rudnick & Wolfe, drafted the original resolution, and had said it was needed to comply with Maryland's new Truth in Taxation law.

Under the law, which took effect Oct. 1, local governments will tax residential and business properties at 100 percent of assessed value instead of a percentage. The law was intended to simplify assessment notices. It was not supposed to affect the amount taxpayers are charged because it would be paired with corresponding decreases in tax rates.

But in Columbia, such a change has the potential to affect how much people pay because it creates a loophole to get around the community's limit on assessments.

The association charges an annual property assessment to support recreational amenities and other services. Under legally enforceable covenants, the assessments are limited to 75 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

Some board members warned that the council was free to raise the rate to the 75-cent maximum - doubling the amount charged because the assessment base had been doubled.

Some who supported the December action called such tax increases highly unlikely. But they agreed to reverse course after Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. issued an opinion that the Truth in Taxation law did not apply to the private homeowners association because it is not a municipal or county government. The opinion was issued at the request of Councilwoman Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills.

Last night, the 10-member council voted 8-0 in favor of the resolution, with Kirk Halpin of Kings Contrivance and Robert Conors of Dorsey's Search abstaining. Adam Rich of River Hill voted by proxy.

Councilwoman Cecilia Januszkiewicz of Long Reach, who opposed the December resolution along with Russell, Rich and Vincent Marando of Wilde Lake, won two changes in last night's resolution, also prepared by Bamberger.

At her suggestion, the board deleted a phrase that said the December resolution was passed on Bamberger's advice. She said only a few council members were privy to the advice.

Januszkiewicz had a phrase inserted to note that an assistant state attorney general had written a letter of advice in June - six months before the council vote - that said the Truth in Taxation law did not apply to the association.

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