Lawmaker offers deal for lower assessments

Cost limits would delay bill on covenant changes

January 18, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Del. Shane E. Pendergrass has offered a compromise to the Columbia Association: She will delay legislation that would allow a majority of voting property owners to change CA's covenants if the association supports her bill imposing a retroactive 10 percent ceiling on property assessment increases.

"I think that this is a very reasonable and fair proposal and gives everyone something," said Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat. "It's a win-win solution."

At a meeting Jan. 10, the board told Pendergrass it supports the 10 percent cap - an effort to help property owners with skyrocketing reassessments. But the board doesn't want it to be retroactive, as it worries about the financial implications of being forced to return money to homeowners in east Columbia, where property assessments jumped an average of 33.4 percent.

That jump caused an outcry from residents, which spurred Pendergrass' legislation. The increase also brought an extra $2.7 million in annual revenue - which is based on property assessments - to the homeowners association's 2004 budget.

In an e-mail sent to the board Friday, Pendergrass wrote: "Retroactivity provides equity for both the west and east portions of Columbia. Philosophically, it needs to be included for fairness, and I will not remove it from the bill."

She wrote that Dels. Frank S. Turner, Elizabeth Bobo, Neil F. Quinter and Warren E. Miller - who all represent parts of the county - agree with her.

At the board's request, Pendergrass will change the bill so it only allows credits, not rebates, as the process for returning the money to east Columbians.

Board Chairman Miles Coffman said the panel will meet soon to consider Pendergrass' proposal. He said offering credits to east Columbia homeowners might be a way to address the high annual charges.

"We have to take care of the east side some way, and that may be a way for us to take care of them easier," he said.

West Columbia homeowners recently received their reassessment notices and homes there increased an average of 47.4 percent.

To address the rising assessments, the board has included a 10-cent drop in the annual charge in the proposed 2005 and 2006 budgets. If the board approves the new rate next month, it will be set at 63 cents per $100 of valuation assessed on 50 percent of the fair market value.

Pendergrass' other bill would allow CA's covenants to be changed if at least 10 percent of the property owners petition for an amendment. It would then have to be approved by 51 percent of those casting ballots. Under current rules, covenants can be altered only by the unanimous approval of property owners.

The board is concerned that the proposed requirements are too loose and asked Pendergrass to delay submitting the bill so it can study options and talk with the community about appropriate amendment procedures.

Pendergrass offered to hold the bill until Oct. 1 to give CA time to build a consensus about how changes should be made to its covenants.

"If they're serious about dealing with this issue, it gives them plenty of time to move forward," she said.

If the association does not support Pendergrass' 10 percent cap legislation, she will submit that measure and the covenant bill this legislative session.

If she goes forward with the covenant bill, she said she would add a required quorum of voters that would be needed to change the requirements. She wrote to the board that she believes the covenant bill could be submitted "in a mature and polished state" this year.

Alex Hekimian, president of the citizens watchdog group Alliance for a Better Columbia, applauded Pendergrass' efforts and said the group defers to her judgment on the compromise she's suggesting.

"If she feels that that's a good way to go, then we will support that position," he said.

In her e-mail, Pendergrass wrote that she's optimistic the board will agree with her plan because "it is reasonable, workable, and acknowledges the important role that you play as well as the importance of relieving the burden that 47% assessment increases will place on your constituents and mine."

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