After a year of intense promotion by a small group of activists, a movement for local self-government in the "new town" of Columbia, Md., has failed to reach its goal.
The Columbia Council, an elected civic committee and the closest thing to local government the 50,000 residents have now, officially abandoned the idea of becoming a municipality in a 3-3 tie vote last week.
The push for incorporation was undertaden by some residents who saw this as a way to free Columbia's citizens from some of the financial obligations imposed on them by the Rouse Corp., which developed the town and still has a major voice in how it is run.
The idea never caught on, residents say, because a new layer of government was viewed by many as an unnecessary addition that could lead to greater costs. Many more just didn't care, according to the proposal's backers.
Now that it lacks the approval of the group elected to speak for the town, the idea is not likely to win any other proponents in county or state governments, observers say.
"People asked me immediately how much more a municipality would cost us," said Pam Mack, a council member who opposed the idea. growth of power in a new bureaucracy would just lead to more costly growth of government."
Besides, said Bill White, another opponent on the council, "the very concept on which Columbia was started seems to be working pretty darn good."
Developer James K. Rouse, whose experiments in community planning have gained him a national reputation, originated that concept 12 years ago in establishing Columbia as "the next America" in the middle of rolling farmlands in Howard County half-way between Washington and Baltimore.
Determined to make a profit, yet wanting to give the residents a participatory government, he set up the quasigovernmental Columbia Association to plan, finance and operate the elaborate community facilities that make the small city especially attractive.
These services, from public boating to swimming pools and tennis courts in every neighborhood, are financed by a lien -- in effect a property tax on residences and businesses -- of 75 cents per $100 assessed value, plus additional users' fees.
The association's 15-member governing board includes the eight members of the Columbia Council -- elected by the town's residents -- and seven members appointed by the Rouse Corp.
On votes involving personnel matters and financial decisions, however, votes of the Rouse Corp.'s appointees votes of the Rouse Corp.'s appointees are more heavily weighted than the council members' votes, so the company actually has the majority vote.
Originally, the balance of power on the Columbia Association's board of directors was to shift in 1977, with the elected representatives of the residents taking control. But the 1974-75 recession drastically slowed the town's growth and plunged the Columbia Association into near bankruptcy.
The developer rescued its governmental arm by lending the Columbia Association $11 million. Until that debt is paid off, which will be in the 1980s, the developer will stay in control.
Meanwhile the average household assessment of $80 to $100 annually is not deductible from personal income taxes -- as municipal taxes would be -- as long as the community facilities are privately financed. Columbia's residents pay this lien in addition to their property taxes to Howard County.
Arguing that the state's third largest community, now nearly half of Howard County's population, was just another "company town," some residents began the push for local self-government about four years ago.
They said it would save residents collectively at least $1.2 million annually in interest payments because of the lower interest rates on municipal bonds compared to interest rates on private loans.
In addition, they contended Maryland law governing municipalities would force the Columbia Association to balance its budget. The association's $40.5 million debt has been steadily growing.
"The whole thing was too complex and overwhelming for the citizens to deal with," said Roy Appletree.
During recent hearings on the Columbia Association's $7 million budget, no one showed up to protest the increase in some users' fees for swimming pools and local buses. "People told me, 'Well, rates are increasing everywhere, why not here?'" said council member Pam Mack.
Only two residents showed up for the debate on incorporation Thursday.
"What folks are really looking for here are parks, pools, bike paths and community centers," said Appletree. "Most people don't care whether they are run by the Columbia Association, the Rouse company or somebody in Wyoming."