The Columbia council, comprised of elected representatives from each of Columbia's villages, has taken the first step toward seeking special state tax district status for the new town.
In a 6-1 vote, the council last week approved a proposal that would form a special state tax district to assume the functions of the Columbia Association, the non-profit corporation set up by the developer to provide certain services for Columbis residents.
Before the special state tax district can become reality, however, the Maryland General Assembly must pass enabling legislation - and action that council members conceded may not be likely this session - and Columbia voters must then approve the measure.
Establishment of Columbia as a special state tax district would:
Allow property owners to deduct Columbia Association (CA) assessment fees from their federal income taxes. Currently the CA charges residents 75 cents per $100 of assessed property value to finance certain services such as a bus system, open space maintenance, and a recreation program. But those fees cannot be deducted from Columbia resident's federal taxes. Under the proposal for special tax district status, the present assesment would be retained as the maximum tax allowed.
Allow officials of the special tax district, which would have to assume CA's debt, to issue tax-exempt bonds at interest rates considerably lower than CA's corporate bonds. CA president padriac Kennedy has estimated the special tax district could save more than $1 million a year in interest alone on the association's debt.
Provide more citizen control over CA functions than the present system allows. A tax district would be directed by elected officials supervising a paid staff.
CA's deficit amounted to $2.2 million last year and is projected at "more than $1 million" for this year, according to council member Roy Appletree. While the annual deficit is being lowered, services offered by CA "are not all they used to be," Appletree said, and the association's long range plans could be further "thrown off by unforseen contingencies" such as another housing recession.
Besides budget problems and constantly rising fees for CA services, another sore point with some Columbians is the developer's dominance of CA's board of directors. Resident participation on CA's board of directors is based on Columbia's population and is increasing as the city grows. Current projections call for resident control of the board by 1981.
In the meantime, however, the developer, Howard Research and Development Corp., has seven votes on the board while Columbia residents have a total of three and a half votes. Columbia council members are the residents' representatives on the CA board.
Howard is a joint venture of the Rouse Company and Connecticut General Life Insurance Company.
"It is quite clear that the people of Columbia want CA changed, both from the fiscal and a government stand-point," William Coughlan, Columbia council chairman, said.
Appletree, who headed the council's first effort two years ago to find an alternative means of financing CA's activities, agreed that "CA is in financial difficulty."
The association's current debt is $36.2 million, of which $18 million is for capital project expenses while the remainder represents operating expenses.
After three hours of debate the council accepted the alternative financing committee's report recommending special tax district status. A minority-of-one report from committee member Monroe Burk, a professor of economics, suggesting establisment of Columbia as a municipality briefly gained some support but was finally dropped in favor of immediate action.
Proponents of the state special tax district argued that two separate committees, representing two years of study on the issue, had both preferred some form of special tax district to establishment of Columbia as a separate municipality.
The first committee, which issued its report one year ago, called for a county special tax district. That proposal died when it was learned a county district could not issue its own bonds.
Several council members also noted that municipal status entails broader powers and responsibilities than Columbia residents seem to want.
Edward Windsor, the council member who spurred formation of the original alternative finance committee in 1976, repeatedly urged his colleagues last week to postpone their decision. Windsor argued that county council members and Howard County delegation to the General Assembly should first be consulted, and that perhaps a legal opinion from either the county or the attorney general's office should first be obtained.
Declaring that failing to consult elected county officials would be "a tactical mistake," Windsor said, "it follows accepted procedure . . . and they may have something to contribute."
But another council member, Jeanne Nicholson, retorted that "sooner or later, you have to take a stand," and Windsor eventually voted with the majority.