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Columbia tax unit touted to save fortune Panel asserts change could reap up to $25 million


Columbia could save as much as $25 million by becoming a special tax district or a municipality with limited functions, according to a key committee looking at improving the way the community is governed.

Critics say talk of such savings don't tell the complete story.

After spending four years drafting recommendations for a Columbia Forum report, the committee has decided to include a controversial 11th-hour amendment to its key proposal.

The panel's top recommendation is the appointment of a commission to study Columbia's future governance.

The amendment the panel decided to add yesterday will assert that the unincorporated community could save as much as $25 million in bond interest payments by becoming a municipality or a special tax district.

In addition, said the committee, Columbia taxpayers could write off an estimated $3 million a year on their income taxes if a change in government were made.

"In today's environment a lot of what governments can do is dictated by money. It seems a sin not to spell out to the public the money that could be saved and consider how it could be used to make a better community," said Alan Schwartz, a Columbia attorney who headed the study committee.

Critics of the amendment insist that such savings are only potential and that the amendment does not tell the whole story.

Pam Mack, a vice chair of the Columbia Association, is among those concerned about the panel's wording of the amendment to the key recommendation.

"My objection would be that the way it will be presented won't lay out the full picture," she said.

"The way it's worded may bias it."

The committee's recommendations will be included in a 50-page report titled "An Agenda for Columbia."

The objective set out by the Columbia Forum, a non-profit think tank, for 12 volunteer study committees was to mark Columbia's 25th anniversary by mapping out goals and recommendations for the future of Columbia.

Since many government functions in Columbia are handled by the private non-profit Columbia Association and the Columbia Council, they can't borrow money in the municipal bond market at the low rates governments are generally awarded.

Mr. Schwartz' committee, aided by a bond expert, concluded that a municipality of Columbia could save millions in interest payments by refinancing its bond debt -- about $78 million in 1991 -- at lower interest rates.

But such a refinancing would undoubtedly bring lawsuits by bond holders, and legal challenges would probably be tied up in the courts for many years, said Raymond Wacks, the county budget director, who was a member of the governance committee.

"The question that should be raised for people is: what is the feasibility of this being able to happen?

"The answer is: it's going to be very tough to pull off," Mr. Wacks said.

One problem is that most of the notes carry interest rates significantly higher than rates paid by fiscally sound municipalities.

In addition, Columbia's bonds are all what are known as "non-callable" in financial parlance. That means that they cannot be paid off early. Note holders are promised they will earn the full investment on their bond purchase.

An analysis of the Columbia Association's bond debt by an independent bond expert, however, showed the notes carried an average 10 percent interest rate, with some as high as 18 percent, Mr. Schwartz said.

In comparison, interest rates on bond debt held by governments averaged about 6.25 percent, the consultant's analysis said.

Mr. Schwartz said he and other committee members believe that the potential cost savings that Columbia property owners and the Columbia Association could realize by establishment of a government is "too compelling to ignore" and therefore should be included as part of the final recommendations in the report.

Karen Kuecker, vice chair of the Columbia Council, is concerned that the revised recommendation won't spell out the trouble spots inherent in establishing a Columbia government.

"The recommendation makes it sound like this could be done and it would result in nothing but benefits.

The reality is that refinancing the bonds might prove impossible and could have some high costs. That's not being spelled out," said Ms. Kuecker.

But Mr. Schwartz argues that the financial, political and legal hurdles costs are exactly what would be examined in depth by the commission his panel recommends be appointed.

"They should move quickly on their work and issue a report within a year so everything is laid on the table for the public to see."

The other potential benefit that would result from establishing a Columbia government Mr. Schwartz said, is a tax savings for Columbia residents.

Residents now must pay an annual lien to the Columbia Association, based on the value of their property.

The rate is now 73 cents per $100 of assessed value, but the assessments are not tax deductible.

The other key recommendations included in the governance committee's final report call for:

*Amending election rules in Columbia's 10 villages to allow for everyone over the age of 18 to vote for candidates running for a village or Columbia Council office, as opposed to the one vote per-household system in place in all but two villages.

*Requiring that the chairman of the Columbia Council be elected community-wide rather than appointed by the council.

*Increasing one-year council terms to two years, and stagger the terms.

The entire report will be discussed at the forum-sponsored "Landfall Conference," an open meeting scheduled for Oct. 25.

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