Higher CA fees likely for west

Md. reassessing property

`substantial' rise expected

Maybe a 50% increase, Wacks says

Board working to ease burden for homeowners


November 09, 2003|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

While east Columbians are still smarting from sharply higher Columbia Association assessment fees, soaring home values are about to hit west Columbians and possibly cause even bigger bills, officials say.

The state is reassessing property in west Columbia, where homes are expected to increase in value at a "substantial" amount, according to the state assessor's office.

That has the potential to add a couple of million dollars to the Columbia Association's coffers - after a $2.7 million influx in assessment revenue this year after east Columbia was reassessed.

"People in east Columbia shouldn't feel bad," said Kent T. Finkelsen, assistant supervisor for assessments in Howard County.

West Columbia property owners are scheduled to be notified of their updated property values by the end of the year. When the state reassessed east Columbia last year, residential property increased an average of 33.4 percent. Finkelsen said an estimate is not available for west Columbia.

"All I can say is, there will be substantial [residential] increases in west Columbia, and in Howard County in general," Finkelsen said.

During a forum sponsored by the county League of Women Voters last month, Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, said about the area of the county being reassessed: "I'm estimating these reassessments will be up 50 percent." He repeated that assertion at a meeting Wednesday with Howard County Executive James N. Robey and state legislators.

The Columbia Association's board of directors is in the midst of trying to ease the financial burden that rising property values are causing homeowners. The board is considering lowering the assessment rate or offering rebates. In a straw vote during a budget work session last month, the board agreed to lower the rate a dime, to 63 cents per $100 of valuation assessed on 50 percent of the fair market value.

The assessment rate will not be made final until the board approves the 2005 budget in February.

The board also likely will discuss in its budget process a ruling from the Internal Revenue Service stating that the Columbia Association could offer all property owners rebates or credits against assessment charges in years when there is a surplus higher than budgeted - without jeopardizing the association's nonprofit status.

That would allow the board to rebate $2.6 million of the surplus in the 2003 budget - if it approves such a move.

But some board members are concerned that lowering the rate or offering rebates to all property owners doesn't do enough to specifically address the issue of east Columbia's rising assessment bills.

"The thing that most concerns me is an equitable solution," said board member Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills.

Some board members have broached the idea of dedicating more capital projects to the east side to compensate for the rate increase. However, other board members contend that the assessment rate shouldn't be considered within an east side vs. the west side context, pointing out that amenities between east and west Columbia are not necessarily equal.

River Hill and Dorsey's Search, for instance, are on the west side and have one swimming pool, but the residents pay the same assessment rate as the rest of Columbia; some villages on the west side have three or four pools, and, Town Center, also on the west side, doesn't have a pool.

"It's not an east-side, west-side issue," said board member Donna L. Rice of Town Center. "In all fairness to all residents of Columbia, it needs to be equitable across the board. I'm not going to support anything that is not."

Board member Tom O'Connor of Dorsey's Search said the assessment issue should be examined by looking at Columbia as a whole, and the board should not focus on trying to appease east Columbians with capital projects.

"I think we're really going down the wrong road if we're going to do that type of thought pattern," he said. "Our job isn't to give just one community ... special consideration."

To address the rising assessment charges, Del. Shane E. Pendergrass, a Howard Democrat, is drafting legislation that would allow for a 10 percent ceiling on the change in assessment in the association's billings. The law would offer relief to the east-side homeowners by being retroactive to its recent increase.

Joel Pearlman, a spokesman for the Alliance for a Better Columbia, a citizens watchdog group, said the association should refund the $2.7 million to all property owners who had their values increase in the past reassessment. The group supports Pendergrass' ideas to implement a ceiling on the rate increase because it would help prevent all Columbia homeowners from getting extraordinarily high assessment bills.

"Our goal is really to treat everybody the same - whatever benefits east Columbia gets this year, in terms of protection from unexpected large increases, of course, we would have to apply that to west Columbia next year," Pearlman said.

"We definitely do not want this to be a battle of who gets more, east Columbia or west Columbia," he said. "The idea is to be absolutely fair to everybody."

Sun staff writer Larry Carson contributed to this article.

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