Columbia residents consider incorporation, special taxing district status


Nearly a quarter of a century old and growing, Columbia is still trying to define itself.

A citizens group has launched a study to determine whether this unincorporated city, built by the Rouse Co., needs to adopt a new form of governance.

The Columbia Forum has appointed a nine-member committee to examine whether the city, whose population of 75,000 is spread over an area the size of Manhattan, should become an incorporated municipality, form a special taxing district or continue to be run by the non-profit Columbia Association.

"It is exciting to revisit an issue that is important to the Columbia community," said Alan M. Schwartz, a lawyer heading the study. "Today, Columbia is more mature, with a larger population. And it is healthy for a city to confront these issues."

Since its inception, the city has been run by the Columbia Association, which owns and maintains more than 2,000 acres of open space, as well as playgrounds, swimming pools, tennis courts, a golf course and other facilities. Its policies are set by the Columbia Council, a group of elected representatives from each of the city's nine villages.

This year, the association is spending $27.9 million on operations and $10 million on capital projects. The money comes from a fee paid by city property owners of 75 cents per $100 of assessed value, as well as from grants and user fees.

The biggest step for Columbia would be to become an incorporated municipality, making it the second largest in Maryland. Its elected officials potentially could be responsible for providing a full range of services -- from a police force to street paving to governing land use.

A less powerful incorporation is the special taxing district. It also would be run by elected officials and could provide some services and manage recreation facilities. However, its powers and responsibilities would be less far-reaching than those of a municipality.

Any change in the town's governance would require enabling legislation from the General Assembly and by Columbia residents in a referendum.

The issue is not a new one.

Thirteen years ago, Mr. Schwartz was among a group of citizens advocating the creation of a special taxing district, similar to the one that provides a police force and other services in the Anne Arundel County community of Crofton.

Among the benefits of special taxing districts -- and incorporation -- is that property owners could deduct annual assessments from their federal income taxes.

Such a district also would permit tax-exempt financing, lowering the cost of paying off the Columbia Association's debt.

The association has assets of $67 million and a debt of $83 million, said Robert R. Krawczak, an association vice president.

"We intend to open this issue up for public discussion," said Mr. Schwartz.

"Right now, the voter turnout for village elections is very sparse and disappointing, and perhaps a new form of governance could generate more interest."

Among those certain to be in on the debate is the Columbia Association's main critic, Alex Hekimian, president of the Alliance for Better Columbia. He advocates an incorporated municipality.

"We are a city of 75,000, and a city of that size needs self-determination and checks and balances," he said.

"Right now, the residents don't have a lot of say-so, and there is not a lot of accountability."

"It is a good thing that the Columbia Forum is doing in examining the governance of the city, but my concern is that its task force might be influenced by the Columbia Association and the Rouse Co.," Mr. Hekimian added.

Morris Keeton, president of the Columbia Forum, said he believed the "probability is that we will not have municipality because of the problems of duplication of services with the county."

Pam Mack, vice president of community relations for the Columbia Association, said a taxing district was considered in the 1970s because of critics' concerns that Rouse Co.'s control of the association's board of directors made Columbia a "company town."

However, the idea was opposed by the Columbia Council for fear that it would undermine the sense of community in the city's villages.

"One concern was that it would destroy the existing village election system, because the one-person, one-vote requirement would result in a redrawing of the election district lines," she said.

In addition, Ms. Mack said, the issue of control of the Columbia Association began to abate as a move was under way to allow citizens to govern it, as they do now.

Padraic Kennedy, president of the association since 1972, said he does not favor a municipality or special taxing district but that he is not opposed to the issue being re-examined.

"The Columbia Association is a unique combination of public and private aspects giving us the flexibility and creativeness you don't often find in government, yet we apply the private discipline of the bottom line to our finances and still have public accountability," Mr. Kennedy said.

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