CA still split on bill to cap levy

Some on board assert action can be taken without measure's OK

`It's politics,' says Coffman


March 10, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Proposed state legislation that would impose a 10 percent cap on rising property assessments in Columbia is continuing to drive a wedge between the Columbia Association's board members.

Five board members are accusing other directors of spreading misinformation by claiming the homeowners association does not need state legislation to place a cap on rising assessments.

"It seems to me that some of the members are operating in La-La Land," board member Barbara Russell said. "And I find that very disturbing."

Russell and four other board members - Joshua Feldmark, David Hlass, Phil Marcus and Wolfger Schneider - have written a three-page statement outlining why the association cannot use an assessment cap without the approval of HB 566, sponsored by Del. Shane E. Pendergrass. The bill would limit the impact of skyrocketing state property tax assessments on the association's annual charge imposed on property owners, as well as phase-in the change in assessment over three years.

"The five of us believed that it was time to straighten out the facts," said Marcus, who represents Kings Contrivance.

Board Chairman Miles Coff- man is perturbed that the directors are taking the issue to the media instead of to the 10-mem- ber board. He believes they drafted the statement in preparation for next month's elections for the Columbia Council, whose members make up the board.

"They wanted to clear it up - What makes them the experts?" said Coffman, who has not seen the statement. "It's politics. Let's understand what this is."

Some board members maintain that when the board approved the fiscal 2005 budget last month - which included a 10 percent cap on rising assessments - it was not contingent on the approval of Pendergrass' legislation.

"I believe it's our responsibility to figure out how to do [a cap] if the legislation does not pass," said board member Cabell Greenwood of River Hill.

But the five board members who drafted the statement dispute that idea.

"Since I've been on the board, I've never experienced a mis- information campaign among some board members like this one," said Russell, who represents Oakland Mills. "I don't even know where some board members are getting their information or if they're getting their information."

In the statement, the five board members claim Pendergrass' legislation is necessary because Columbia Association covenants require that the annual charge be based on the highest valuation of the land. The covenants cannot be changed without unanimous approval by property owners, and Pendergrass has submitted another bill that would allow a majority of voting property owners to alter those regulations.

An assistant attorney general supports the five board members' claim. In a March 2 letter to Pendergrass, Assistant Attorney General Robert A. Zarnoch wrote that without unanimous approval of property owners or enactment of state legislation, "CA does not have the authority to impose this 10 percent assessment cap."

However, Zarnoch also noted in August that legislation requiring the association to phase-in assessment increases in its annual charges would "raise a serious constitutional question."

Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat, introduced her bill in response to assessments in east Columbia that rose by an average 33.4 percent last year. West Columbia homes were also recently reassessed, jumping in value by an average 47.4 percent.

Last week, residents testified before the House Environmental Matters Committee on both of Pendergrass' bills, presenting mixed views on whether the legislation was necessary. The committee has not voted on the legislation.

At that hearing, Columbia residents critical of the association vented myriad complaints - allegations of closed meetings, withholding information from residents and the association staff dominating decision-making.

"I am appalled at the workings of the Columbia Association," Joel Pearlman, a spokesman for the Alliance for a Better Columbia, told the committee.

Del. George W. Owings III appeared flabbergasted at the residents' allegations.

"There are laws in this state, I don't care how big you think you are," he said, responding to residents' claims of being unable to get requested information.

Owings, a Calvert County Democrat, suggested that six of Columbia's 10 villages join to elect a majority to take back control of the association from the staff. He also asked if any of the villages had considered breaking away from Columbia.

By the time Coffman testified before the committee, he had heard enough. "I have got to be the worst chair of the worst organization in the state of Maryland, based on what we've heard here," Coffman said.

Others joined Coffman in defending the board, telling the committee that Columbia Association staff does not dominate the organization, and that its budgets, financial statements and audited reports are available to the public.

"The Columbia Association board of directors has had only one primary thought - that is to listen to our residents," said board member Pearl Atkinson-Stewart.

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