2 groups may study city status


The Howard County Chamber of Commerce, concerned about how a drive to turn Columbia into a city would affect business taxes and land-use planning, has formed a task force to study the issue.

And later this month, the Howard County League of Women Voters will decide at its annual meeting whether to take up the incorporation issue as one of its few research projects for the next year.

Those leading county business and nonpartisan political organizations are considering the incorporation issue at a time when the citizens group leading the movement for incorporation has been unable to field more than one candidate for eight open Columbia Council seats and has been questioned about possible flaws in its referendum petition.

The 1,000-member chamber has formed a Municipal Option Task Force to research the implications of incorporation, with a focus on taxation and zoning issues.

"We don't know how far the issue will go. We want to be prepared and have done our homework if we need to take a position," said Bobbie Dillow, chairwoman of the task force, which includes 12 members from such fields as law, finance, development, land planning, transportation and utilities.

"What is the impact on businesses if Columbia becomes an incorporated city, from the perspective of taxing?" she asked, adding that the chamber is concerned about a potential duplication of services between the county and the proposed Columbia city government.

Businesses also are concerned that the possibility of a Columbia planning and zoning authority being created separate from the county's could have an adverse impact on the county's comprehensive development plans, she said.

Since September, the Columbia Municipal League Inc., the pro-incorporation citizens group, has collected more than 3,000 of the roughly 10,000 signatures it needs from registered Columbia voters to present a petition -- along with a proposed city charter -- to the Howard County Council.

The council must approve the petition and charter before the incorporation question can be placed on a ballot.

The pro-incorporation group wants to replace the private, nonprofit Columbia Association (CA) -- a multifaceted homeowners organization serving the unincorporated community of 82,000 residents -- with what it says would be a more democratic, accountable and responsive government.

Incorporation would give Columbia more political power, create a greater sense of identity and foster more citizen participation, Columbia Municipal League leaders say.

The league plans to develop a charter -- a city constitution -- but has yet to outline specifics of what services a city would provide and the financial and legal implications of incorporation.

CA imposes an annual property levy on Columbia homeowners and businesses to help pay for recreation facilities, community programs and parkland maintenance.

The chamber task force plans a series of meetings over the next two months with speakers including Howard government officials and representatives from the Columbia Municipal League, CA and the association's elected residents' board, the Columbia Council.

Rabbi Martin Siegel, spokesman for the Columbia Municipal League, is scheduled as the first speaker Friday.

The task force may take a formal position on incorporation by mid-June, depending on how the incorporation movement progresses, Ms. Dillow said. The task force also may develop recommendations to address concerns, she said.

Rabbi Siegel said he's glad the chamber is becoming involved. "The business community has a major stake," he said. "It's a player in Columbia. It should be involved."

But Fran Wishnick, co-founder of a Columbia residents' group skeptical about incorporation, cautioned that business leaders may meet with the same frustration that residents have encountered in trying to evaluate a proposal she describes as short on specifics or tangible benefits.

"Businesses, just as people who live in the community, are trying to see what this is really all about, bottom line," said Ms. Wishnick, a former Columbia Council member and leader of the newly formed Columbians for Howard County. "How will my taxes be affected? How will services be affected?"

Anita Iribe, president of Howard's League of Women Voters, said the incorporation issue fits well within that nonpartisan, educational organization's scope of interests.

"We deal with governmental issues," she said. "Certainly this is a potentially significant one for the county."

The voters league will decide April 26 whether to perform a study.

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